Who is Raif Badawi?
Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi blogger, was arrested in June 2012 on a range of charges related to insulting Islam. Badawi was prosecuted for founding a website called: “Free Saudi Liberals”, which endorsed online debate about religious and political issues in Saudi Arabia.
Badawi was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and was ordered to receive 1,000 lashes, an excessive punishment which has been widely condemned by the international community as a cruel and unusual punishment.
In January 2015, Badawi was flogged 50 times in a public square, the first set of 20 he was to receive. His flogging sparked a global outcry that brought Saudi Arabia’s freedom of expression policy under scrutiny.
From prison, Badawi wrote a letter on his ordeal, saying:
“All this cruel suffering happened to me because I expressed my opinion”
Badawi added that a cheering crowd had surrounded him during the whipping, crying “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). Further lashings have been delayed due to Badawi’s medical condition.
Despite criticism from the United States, Canada, the United Nations, the European Union and others, a Saudi court upheld his sentence in a ruling in June 2015.
Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children have been granted asylum in Canada.
On July 6, 2015, Badawi’s lawyer and brother-in-law, Waleed Abu al-Khair, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “making international organizations hostile to the kingdom”, in what rights groups said were forms of political persecution.
HRW defined the charges against al-Khair as “vague”, claiming that they “stem solely from his peaceful activism, including statements to news media and tweets criticizing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia”.
The campaign for Raif Badawi’s release has been broadened to include al-Khair and the cases of other conscious prisoners, who are being illegitimately held in prison by the Saudi authorities, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
What is Being Done to Hasten Badawi’s Release?
A massive international campaign has been organized in support of Badawi’s release, including protests, petitions and letters. This has evoked ire from the Saudi government, which has swiftly dismissed the criticism. The global campaign has been personally promoted by Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar.
The European Union: in May 2015, in response to condemnation from the European Union, the Saudi embassy in Brussels sent a statement to the European parliament, saying some international parties had “drifted into an attempt to infringe and attack on the sovereign right of states”.
In June 2015, when Badawi’s sentence was upheld, the European Union issued a statement saying:
“Corporal punishment is unacceptable and contrary to human dignity. Since the beginning of legal proceedings against Mr. Badawi, the EU has been voicing its concern to the Saudi authorities. We reiterate our call to Saudi authorities to suspend any further corporal punishment for Mr Badawi. We will continue to make every effort to engage the Saudi authorities in a dialogue on the need to recognise and respect freedom of speech for all, including those expressing dissenting opinions”
The United Kingdom: in 2015 a Coalition of NGOs for Badawi’s release was formed in the UK, assembled by FreeRaif UK, Jimmy Wales Foundation, English PEN, CAAT and more. Regular vigils are being held every week outside the Saudi Embassy in London to pressure the kingdom to release Badawi.
In January of 2015, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond raised the issue of Badawi’s imprisonment with the Saudi ambassador to the UK. The spokesman of the Foreign Office said:
“We are seriously concerned by Raif Badawi’s case. The UK condemns the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment in all circumstances”
Concerns were also raised by Prince Charles, who brought up Badawi’s case to Saudi King Salman.
On June 17, 2015, on the third anniversary of Badawi’s arrest, a rally was held opposite Downing Street by the UK Coalition of NGOs for Badawi’s release. During the rally, a delegation of parliamentarians and activists delivered an Open letter, signed by over 600 supporters, to UK Prime Minister David Cameron at parliament.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office replied to the Open Letter:
“The British Government is seriously concerned by both the case of Raif Badawi and that of Waleed Abu al-Khair. We have raised both cases with the Saudi authorities…
The UK is a strong supporter of freedom of expression around the world. People must be allowed to freely discuss and debate issues, peacefully challenge their governments, exercise the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and speak out against violations of human rights wherever they occur”
Sweden: In March 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Stockholm as the relationship between the two countries worsened. Saudi Arabia said it was withdrawing Ibrahim bin Saad Al-Ibrahim due to “Sweden’s criticism regarding human rights” in the Saudi kingdom. The move came after Sweden ended a 10-year arms treaty between the two countries.
Earlier that month, the Saudis blocked Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström from delivering a speech about human rights at the summit of the League of Arab States in Cairo. In her intended speech, Wallström wished to say:
“Human rights are a priority in Swedish foreign policy. Freedom of association, assembly, religion and expression are not only fundamental rights and important tools in the creation of vibrant societies. They are indispensable in the fight against extremism and radicalisation. So is a vibrant civil society… Many of these issues are still very much in play today and I urge you to contribute to upholding the agreements made here in Cairo 20 years ago”
In January 2015, following Raif Badawi’s first flogging, Wallström criticized the Saudi government on her Twitter account:
Germany: Every Thursday since February 2015, regular protests have been held next to the Saudi Embassy in Berlin, to pressure authorities to release Badawi.
Following an appeal from Badawi’s wife, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel brought up the issue of Badawi’s imprisonment when he visited King Salman in Riyadh in March 2015. Gabriel stressed to the King that Badawi’s punishment is “unfathomable to us and that it will of course strain bilateral ties” between the countries.
Before his visit, Gabriel was quoted as saying:
“Practically everyone in the German government who has any chance to do so is working towards his release and for an end to the jail sentence”
The United States: In March 2015, more than 60 Members of the United States Congress wrote a letter to King Salman, calling for the release of all “prisoners of conscience”, including Raif Badawi and Waleed Abu al-Khair.
The bipartisan letter encouraged King Salman to serve as an advocate for human rights and democratic reforms within his country:
“Recently, and all too often, women, religious minorities and peaceful political reformers have faced major obstacles to their desire to freely express themselves and fully participate in public life in Saudi Arabia….
One example is Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes for founding a website that encouraged religious and political debate. In his case, representatives of the U.S. government have called upon your country to cancel the sentence, and have also expressed concern with the 15-year sentence and the travel ban imposed on his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair…
Canceling the sentences against Mr. Raif Badawi and Mr. Waleed Abu al-Khair, and releasing immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience punished solely for exercising their basic right to freedom of expression, would be important steps that would communicate your commitments to an expectant international audience”
Canada: In February 2015, the National Assembly of Quebec, where Badawi’s family now lives, passed a motion calling on the governments of both Quebec and Canada to do all in their power to secure the release of Badawi.
Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard has raised the case with the Saudi ambassador to Canada. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs has called Badawi’s sentence a “violation of human dignity”.
“Canada must make every effort to guarantee his release, allow him to return home to his family and to prevent him from being subjected to this horrible punishment simply for having expressed his opinion”
The United Nations: In March 2014, a representative from the International Humanist and Ethical Union spoke at the UN Human Rights Council, where he criticized Badawi’s plight, calling it “a gratuitous, violent sentence”.
In January 2015, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, made an appeal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to release Badawi. Al-Hussein stated that Badawi is being punished merely for “peacefully exercising his right to freedom of opinion and expression”
The UN Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Committee have repeatedly expressed their concerns over the use of flogging as a punishment and have called for its abolition. The UN Committee against Torture is due to examine Saudi Arabia’s report on its implementation of the Convention during 2016.
In a press release, Al-Hussein called to halt the punishment of Raif Badawi, and stated:
“Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment. Such punishment is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the Convention against Torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified.
I appeal to the King of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Mr. Badawi, and to urgently review this type of extraordinarily harsh penalty”
Raif Badawi’s Writings
First published in April 2015 in German, the book is now available in several languages. Providing a much-needed insight into contemporary Saudi society, the book has been heralded as a triumph. With humor and irony, Badawi touches upon issues such as theocracy, religious intolerance, the rights of women and the dangers of religious extremism.
Of the book, the German government-aligned news organization Deutsche Welle said:
“One can hardly enjoy the humor without being haunted by the shocking sentence imposed on the Saudi blogger”
Salman Rushdie has commented on Badawi’s book:
“Raif Badawi’s is an important voice for all of us to hear, mild, nuanced, but clear. His examination of his culture is perceptive and rigorous. Of course he must be saved from the dreadful sentence against him and the appalling conditions of his imprisonment. But he must also be read, so that we understand the struggle within Islam between suffocating orthodoxy and free expression, and make sure we find ourselves on the right side of that struggle”
Badawi’s book was launched in the UK on September 4, 2015.
On October 6, 2015, Jimmy Wales, Chairman of JWF, accepted the PEN Pinter Prize on behalf of Raif Badawi, who won the International Writer of Courage. During his speech, Wales presented Badawi’s book and demanded his immediate release while stating: “Raif Badawi is a brave peaceful activist, not a criminal”.