DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A Saudi high-school chemistry teacher accused of discussing religion with his students has been sentenced to 750 lashes and 40 months in prison for blasphemy, officials said Thursday.
The court ruling was condemned by human rights activists, who said Mohammed Salamah al-Harbi was being imprisoned for having an "open discussion" with students.
Al-Harbi was convicted of questioning and ridiculing Islam, discussing the Bible and defending Jews, judicial officials said Thursday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Prosecutors acted after a complaint by students and al-Harbi's fellow teachers, officials said. The court in the northern province of al-Qassim heard the case Saturday in a six-hour trial.
Al-Harbi was in prison Thursday, but the Saudi newspaper Al-Madinah reported him as saying he would appeal the verdict.
"There are charges that the judge read which are unknown to me, such as defending Jews and the Bible, ridiculing Islam and witchcraft. It's strange that the judge ruled so quickly and wanted to end the case so fast," al-Harbi was quoted as saying.
His lawyer, Abdul Rahman al-Lahem, refused to talk to The Associated Press because of the sensitivity of the case, but he was quoted as telling Al-Madinah the judge refused his request to postpone the trial to allow time for a proper defense.
"The judge's refusal to read a statement by witnesses is a violation of the defendant's rights," al-Lahem was quoted as saying in Sunday's edition.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said al-Harbi had been "talking to his pupils about his views on a number of current topics, such as Christianity, Judaism and the causes of terrorism."
"The Saudi government is imprisoning schoolteachers for having open discussions with their students," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East director said in a statement Thursday. "As long as schoolteachers face persecution for doing their job, Saudi children will lose out."
Al-Harbi's sentence likely will be seen as a setback to Saudi moves to reform its education system. Following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the government altered the school curriculum to remove passages from textbooks that were offensive to Christians and Jews in an attempt to encourage moderation and tolerance.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in those attacks were Saudis. Local intellectuals and newspaper columnists said the strict Islamic tenets followed in schools and mosques could have played a role in fostering Islamic militancy.