Saudi King Abdullah in August 2012
Saudi King Abdullah in August 2012Reuters

Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, The Independent reported on Tuesday, citing Human Rights Watch.

In a string of royal decrees and an overarching new piece of legislation to deal with terrorism generally, the Saudi King Abdullah has clamped down on all forms of political dissent and protests that could "harm public order," according to the report.

The new laws have largely been brought in to combat the growing number of Saudis travelling to take part in the civil war in Syria, who have previously returned with newfound training and ideas about overthrowing the monarchy.

To that end, King Abdullah issued Royal Decree 44, which criminalizes "participating in hostilities outside the kingdom" with prison sentences of between three and 20 years, Human Rights Watch said.

In February, the Saudi king decreed jail terms of up to 20 years for belonging to "terrorist groups" and fighting abroad, in another attempt to deter Islamist Saudis from becoming jihadists.

In early March, Saudi Arabia blacklisted the Muslim Brotherhood and two Syrian jihadist groups as terrorist organizations, ordering citizens fighting abroad to return home within 15 days or face imprisonment.

According to The Independent, article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based."

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said, "Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism.”

"These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups," he added.

Human Rights Watch said the new regulations were also a setback to campaigns for the protection and release of a number of prominent human rights activists currently jailed in Saudi Arabia.

It said Waleed Abu al-Khair and Mikhlif al-Shammari recently lost appeals and will soon begin three-month and five-year respective sentences for criticizing Saudi authorities.

The organization said the new "terrorism" provisions contain language that prosecutors and judges are already using to prosecute and convict independent activists and peaceful dissidents.

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its violation of human rights, especially those of women, and yet the kingdom recently won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, being one of several countries with questionable human rights records to win seats in this body.