It’s a new day, and what delightful news to wake up to: Raif Badawi has been award the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The prestigious award, offered each year by the European Parliament, honors individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Badawi is a blogger who has been jailed, fined, and publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia. He has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes, and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for insulting Islam on his website promoting social, political and religious debate.
European Parliament president Martin Schulz announcing the 2015 award at the European Parliament, said: “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 added: “I call on King of Saudi Arabia to stop the execution of this sentence, to release Mr. Badawi, to allow him to back to his wife and to allow him to travel here for the December session to receive this prize.”
What kind of stuff has he written? Well this, for example, in 2010: “As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.” (You can read more at The Guardian here.)
The authorities also jailed Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, founder of the group Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for undermining the government, inciting public opinion, and insulting the judiciary.
According to an article in the New York Times:
“Reached by telephone, an official at the Saudi Mission to the European Union in Brussels said the kingdom did not have a response to the announcement. He pointed to a past statement in which the Saudi authorities stated that their judicial system was independent and that it was not the place of outsiders to criticize it.” …
The prize, established in 1988, is named for the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921-89), who led the Soviet Union’s development of the hydrogen bomb and then became a tireless crusader for human rights. Past winners include Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan. In 2013, the prize went to Malala Yousafzai, a teenage Pakistani activist for women’s rights who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2014, it was awarded to Denis Mukwege, a gynecologic surgeon in the Democratic Republic of Congo who has devoted himself to victims of sexual violence during wartime.
News in recent days has been that the next round of floggings are imminent – they had been discontinued because of Badawi’s fragile health, and they wanted, after all, to make sure that he survived long enough for the full sentence. According to a European Parliament announcement, worldwide dismay had a role to play in the postponement as well:
He was administered the first set of 50 lashes in public in January 2015. The remainder were postponed following international protests. Earlier this week the wife of Raif Badawi, Ensaf Haidar, who is currently living in Canada with their three children, announced that the Saudi authorities have given the green light for the flogging to resume.
In February this year MEPs [members of the European Parliament] adopted a resolution strongly condemning the flogging of Badawi as “a cruel and shocking act” and calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities “to release him immediately and unconditionally as he is considered a prisoner of conscience, detained and sentenced solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression”.
This month also, he was the co-recipient (with British journalism James Fenton) of the PEN Pinter Prize, a free-speech award established in 2009 in honor of the British playwright Harold Pinter. The Sakharov award ceremony will be held in Strasbourg on December 16.
On the announcement of the Sakharov Prize, Badawi’s wife said: “Raif would be very happy to see the extent to which his fight is shared by so many people in the world, and this award is further evidence of that.” We’re with you on that, Ms. Haidar.