(Brussels) – The awarding of the European Parliament’s 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, on October 29, 2015, to the jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi highlights Saudi Arabia’s brutal repression of peaceful activists and dissidents. Saudi authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Badawi, who was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam by setting up a liberal website.
Badawi, 31, is one of more than a dozen prominent Saudi activists serving long jail sentences as a result of their peaceful activism. Most have faced broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent, such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “setting up an unlicensed organization,” as well as vague provisions from the 2007 cybercrime law. The European Parliament has described Badawi as a blogger and writer who has “courageously expressed his ideas, openly raised his doubts on the rules of his country which he deemed overtly restrictive and fought for the freedom of thought of all Saudis.” The award ceremony is to take place on December 16, 2015.
“Awarding the Sakharov Prize to Raif Badawi sends a powerful message to the Saudi government that it needs to end its complete intolerance toward citizens who speak out for human rights and reform,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union director. “King Salman should immediately release Badawi and all other peaceful activists and dissidents from their long prison terms.”
The charges against Badawi are based solely on his peaceful exercise of his right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Badawi established his online platform in 2008 to encourage debate on religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have detained Badawi in Jeddah’s Buraiman prison since his arrest on June 17, 2012.
Saudi authorities began carrying out the sentence on January 9, with 50 lashes in public in front of the Juffali Mosque in central Jeddah, but they have not carried out any more flogging sessions since then. Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that lashing is generally carried out with a light wooden cane, and the blows are distributed across the back and legs, which leaves bruising but normally does not break the skin.
The Jeddah Criminal Court originally convicted Badawi in July 2013 and sentenced him to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. An appeals court in May 2014 increased the punishment to 10 years and 1,000 lashes. The appeals judgment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, sentenced Badawi to five years and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (US$266,000) for setting up a “liberal website” and another five years and 1,000 public lashes for “blasphemous phrases on his Facebook page and “disobedience to his father.” The judgment bans Badawi from media work or foreign travel for 10 years after his release.
Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Badawi is part of a series of harsh penalties against Saudi human rights activists and peaceful dissidents. Others include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Badawi’s lawyer, who was sentenced to 15 years in July 2014 solely on account of his peaceful criticism of Saudi human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media. Fadhil al-Manasif faces 14 years in prison on charges stemming largely from his assistance to international journalists covering eastern province protests over the treatment of Shia Muslims in the Sunni-dominated country in 2011 and 2012.
Among the hardest hit have been activists belonging to the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). They also have faced vague charges, including disparaging and insulting judicial authorities, inciting public opinion, insulting religious leaders, participating in setting up an unlicensed organization, and violating the cybercrime law. Members of the group serving long sentences include Mohammed al-Bajadi, Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Fowzan al-Harbi, Suleiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr, and Omar al-Saeed. Two other members – Abd al-Aziz al-Shubaili and Issa al-Hamid – are on trial.
When adopting the EU’s Strategic Framework for Human Rights and Democracy in June 2012, EU foreign ministers pledged that the EU will “throw its full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy and human rights throughout the world.” Despite this pledge, the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS) and the 28 EU member states have yet to unite behind a clear and unequivocal call for the release of Badawi and all others jailed in Saudi Arabia for advocating human rights.
“The EU and all its member states need to make good on their pledge to back human rights defenders,” Leicht said. “They should send one clear message to Saudi Arabia: Enough – release Badawi and all those jailed for calling for freedom now.”