A Twitter page is displayed on a laptop computer. (Photo: Reuters)
A Saudi Arabian court sent three lawyers to prison for terms of between five and eight years on Monday for criticising the country's judiciary and justice system in messages on Twitter, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the US ally has grown increasingly intolerant of any dissent or criticism aimed at the government, the country's ruling Al Saud family or the official clergy which provides judges for its Sharia Islamic courts.
The three lawyers, who were not named by local media, were convicted of prejudicing public order through tweets which contained opinions against the ruler, and expressed contempt for the judiciary and undermined it, SPA reported.
Reform of the kingdom's judiciary and legal system is a main battleground between arch conservatives and relative liberals. It is seen as important by both human rights activists who want to improve legal safeguards for defendants and foreign investors who want sentencing to be more predictable.
King Abdullah announced changes to the judicial system in 2007, including non-Sharia training for judges, the introduction of specialised criminal courts and a means of officially recording verdicts, a prelude to establishing precedent.
Conservative judges, clerics and some officials in the Justice Ministry have strenuously attempted to block the reforms, however, because they see them as undermining Islamic law, liberal lawyers and other legal sources say.
Saudi judges have this year passed death sentences on five members of the country's Sh'ite Muslim minority for their part in anti-government protests and riots. They also handed a 15-year jail term to rights activist Walid Abu al-Khair for criticising the authorities.
The rulers of the world's top oil exporter fear any public expressions of dissent could evolve into direct anti-government protests, which they see as a security risk at a moment of such high regional tension, say analysts.