Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger whose 10-year, 1,000-lash sentence for allegedly insulting Muslim clerics spurred global outrage and drew attention to Saudi Arabia's repressive regime, was on Thursday awarded the European Union's prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
"Freedom of expression is the air that every thinker breathes, the spark that lights his thoughts. Over the centuries, nations and societies have only progressed thanks to their thinkers."
"The conference of Presidents decided that the Sakharov Prize will go to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi," said Martin Schulz, the Parliament’s president. "This man, who is an extremely good man and an exemplary good man, has had imposed on him one of the most gruesome penalties that exist in this country which can only be described as brutal torture."
Schulz then went further, calling on the Saudi king "to free him, so he can accept the prize."
"We call on Saudi Arabian authorities to immediately halt any punishment measures, reconsider the judgement, and release Mr. Badawi without charges," Schulz said in a statement. "The same should apply to all individuals condemned for having expressed freely their opinions in Saudi Arabia and beyond."
Badawi, the creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals, was arrested in 2012 on a charge of insulting Islam and indicted on several charges including apostasy. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, and then resentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison plus a fine in 2014.
The first 50 lashes were administered before hundreds of spectators on 9 January, 2015. The flogging was denounced by Amnesty International at the time as "a vicious act of cruelty which is prohibited under international law." Subsequent sets have been postponed in the face of international condemnation and Badawi's poor health. His sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2015 and he remains in jail.
Meanwhile, having received death threats, his wife and three children fled to Canada. According to Agence France-Presse, Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar hailed the award on Thursday as "a message of hope and courage."
"Raif has spoken up for all Saudis who simply dream of enjoying the same rights as other human beings. He has paid dearly for his commitment and this Sakharov Prize sends a clear and strong message to his torturers."
—Karim Lahiji, International Federation for Human Rights
The award was also celebrated by the Paris-headquartered International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which said Badawi had played a major role in promoting freedom of expression and attempting to foster public debate in Saudi Arabia.
"Raif has spoken up for all Saudis who simply dream of enjoying the same rights as other human beings," said FIDH president Karim Lahiji. "He has paid dearly for his commitment and this Sakharov Prize sends a clear and strong message to his torturers."
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However, the prize comes just two days after Haidar warned that her husband's flogging was expected to resume.
"I was informed by an informed source, that the Saudi authorities have given the green light to the resumption of Raif Badawi’s flogging," Haidar said in a statement Tuesday on a website set up in Badawi's honor. "The informed source also said that the flogging will resume soon but will be administered inside the prison."
Badawi's plight has long provoked calls for Western nations to re-examine their relationships with Saudi Arabia.
"Badawi’s case is not unique," peace activist Medea Benjamin wrote in January, noting that in 2014, Reporters Without Borders described the government as "relentless in its censorship of the Saudi media and the Internet," and ranked Saudi Arabia 164th out of 180 countries for freedom of the press.
"The U.S. government’s response to these egregious and inhumane punishments from its ally usually takes the form of a U.S. State Department spokesperson expressing 'concern'," Benjamin continued. "But there is no major public condemnation. No threats of cutting arms sales. No sanctions against government officials. The U.S. government basically turns a blind eye to the medieval forms of torture the Saudis still mete out."
And FDIH on Thursday called for the prize "to be followed by a reassessment of the EU's approach to Saudi Arabia."
"There is an urgent need for the EU to adopt a clarified policy to support the independent civil society and human rights defenders, to discuss human rights concerns at top diplomatic level with Saudi officials, and to ensure that human rights violators are held accountable," the nonprofit said in a statement.
As Badawi himself wrote in 2010: "Freedom of expression is the air that every thinker breathes, the spark that lights his thoughts. Over the centuries, nations and societies have only progressed thanks to their thinkers."
"What I fear the most," he continued, "is that the brilliant Arab spirits will go into exile in their search for fresh air, far from the threat of religious authoritarianism."