A series of tweets criticising Saudi Arabia’s legal system and prophet Mohammed has cost 28-year-old Vishnu Dev Radhakrishnan, a native of Alappuzha, the next 10 years of his life. On June 7, 2018, Vishnu, who was working in Saudi Arabia for six years at that point, was arrested by the police there for ‘misusing social media’ as well as for hurting the religious and national sentiments of the Kingdom.
On September 13, 2018, he was awarded five years imprisonment in Khobar jail and Saudi Riyal 1,50,000 (approximately Rs 28,50,000) penalty. However, on January 24, 2019, his sentence was increased to 10 years, in addition to the penalty.
According to the letter from the Consular, Passport and Visa (CPV) Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, to Vishnu Dev’s parents, he has been arrested for his involvement in a case of “cybercrime pertaining to blasphemy and spreading messages against the Kingdom through social media.”
An argument over gods
According to his father Radhakrishnan Nair, Vishnu Dev had befriended a Muslim woman in London on Twitter. “During one of their conversations on Twitter, the woman spoke something against lord Shiva. To counter her argument, he tweeted something against prophet Mohammed and asked if her god is merciful, why were Yemen schools bombed,” Radhakrishnan, a former Indian Air Force officer, told TNM.
Vishnu Dev used to work as an engineer at Nasser S Al-Hajri Corporation, a subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, an oil company in the Kingdom.
“The tweets went through Aramco’s server. Vishnu told me that the officials at Aramco might have taken the screenshots of his conversation with the woman and given it to the police,” he says.
Fifteen days prior to his arrest, Aramco’s security personnel started questioning him. “The officials at his company told him that he might be deported and detained him there instead of sending him to the Indian Embassy. He was held at the office for 15 days on the assurance that he will be sent back home; but they cheated him,” Radhakrishnan adds.
According to a member of Navayugam, a Malayali social organisation in Saudi Arabia’s Dammam that actively helps thousands of Indians, Vishnu Dev escaped rigorous punishment, which may even include beheading. In this case, his nationality came as a saving grace, he told TNM.
“Any posts against their religion is a big crime in Saudi Arabia. While the lower court gave him five years imprisonment, the prosecution went for an appeal at the higher court, stating that the punishment is less. So after the trial in the higher court, his sentence was increased to 10 years,” he says.
No response from Indian lawmakers
Ever since Vishnu Dev was arrested in June 2018, his father has been running from pillar to post to get him repatriated to India. From Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia to Union Minister Sushma Swaraj and MP Shashi Tharoor, he knocked on numerous doors, through emails and even Twitter.
@SushmaSwaraj Please help us and do something to get our child Vishnudev passport no. J7442201 released from Saudi Jail. Please consider my case as I am an ex soldier and have served the nation for 21 years. My wife and daughter is in a depressive mood,kindly hep us— Radhakrishnan Nair.V (@rkpoickad) December 10, 2018
'Although the Indian Embassy said a social worker in Dammam is in constant touch with my son, there have been no productive measures yet. Even after the recent sentencing, there has been no response from them,” he says.
Radhakrishnan is leaving no stone unturned to meet all political leaders. “Three months ago, I met BJP’s state president Sreedharan Pillai. He then said he will do the needful, but he got busy with the Sabarimala row. So, I am not sure if he submitted my letter to the officials concerned. I even gave a letter to former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy,” he says.
After reminders, Shashi Tharoor replied. “He, as well as other Indian Associations in Saudi Arabia, told me that the Kingdom grants clemency to prisoners during Eid al-Fitr. I will apply for a clemency appeal and repatriation then,” he says.
The member of Navayugam added, “His company did not take any responsibility for his actions. Also, the Indian Embassy ignored his case and did not give him any help. As per Saudi Law, he has to spend 10 years in prison, pay the fine and then they will deport him to India.”
‘My son accepts his mistake, apologises’
Radhakrishnan tells TNM that Vishnu Dev did not deny the charges against him. “He told me that he made a mistake and tweeted those lines as a retaliation to the woman’s statements, which abused his god. He said that he apologises to all Muslims in the world for his mistake,” he says.
He adds, “Anybody in our neighbourhood in Kerala would vouch for my son. Even if I raise my voice against someone, he would not like it. That is Vishnu Dev. This arrest will affect his sister’s future alliances for marriage.”