A controversial Pakistani commentator has been jailed in Saudi Arabia and reportedly sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes for allegedly criticizing the Saudi government while on a religious pilgrimage.
Saudi authorities have so far denied consular access to Zaid Hamid, who was arrested last month in the holy city of Medina while traveling with his wife.
A spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry, Qazi Khalilullah, confirmed Hamid's arrest but said Saudi officials had not disclosed his sentence. Pakistani diplomats in Riyadh were in touch with Hamid's family, including his wife, who was able to visit him in the prison at Medina, Khalilullah said.
The arrest — and the harsh sentence reported by several Pakistani news outlets — was the latest example of swift, severe justice meted out by Saudi Arabia against those who run afoul of its royal family and the ultraconservative clerics who set the legal and cultural tone for the oil-rich kingdom.
This year, a Saudi blogger who ran a website that was seen to be ridiculing the kingdom's religious police was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes spread over 20 weeks. The blogger, Raif Badawi, became the subject of an international human rights campaign after the initial round of flogging in a public square outside a mosque in Jidda, his hometown.
Hamid, a colorful and sometimes mystifying commentator who is a fixture on Pakistani news channels, reportedly met with a group of Pakistanis living in Saudi Arabia and made remarks critical of the kingdom's policies in neighboring Yemen. The Saudis have led airstrikes by regional nations against Houthi rebels in Yemen since March.
Word of the remarks made their way to Saudi authorities, according to Baqir Sajjad, a journalist in Islamabad who covers the foreign ministry.
Hamid is believed to be close to Pakistan's military establishment and despises the country's civilian leadership. He has also been openly critical of U.S. policies in the region, accusing the CIA of trying to "demolish Pakistan."
Pakistan maintains a close military relationship with Saudi Arabia, but analysts and former diplomats believe Pakistani officials are unwilling to put pressure on their ally to be lenient with Hamid due to his notoriety.
Pakistan has also been unable to persuade its ally to release the estimated 4,000 Pakistanis — including women and children — believed to be languishing in Saudi prisons. Of at least 90 executions carried out in Saudi Arabia last year, 21 were of Pakistanis, the highest number for any foreign country, according to Amnesty International.
For the Record
July 3, 2:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the figures on executions were from this year.
"Saudi's track record is really bad when it comes to treating Pakistani prisoners," said Zaman Khan, a veteran human rights activist and senior member of Pakistan's nongovernmental Human Rights Commission.
About one-third of the kingdom's population of 30 million are foreign nationals, according to government statistics. Saudi press reports estimate that more than 1.5 million Pakistanis live in the country.
Under international law, Pakistani officials have the right to meet with prisoners in foreign countries unless there are compelling reasons to refuse a consular visit. But one retired Pakistani diplomat who did not want to be named criticizing Saudi Arabia said, "The Saudis are different from the rest of the world."
Members of Hamid's family and representatives of his consulting company, Brass Tacks, could not be reached for comment. But his official Facebook page was updated Thursday with a message that read: "We always knew such times will come upon us when we will be tested to our limits."
Special correspondent Sahi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India. Staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.