Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (IFEX) – After setting up an online discussion forum promoting free speech and liberalism, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 1,000 lashes; his forum was permanently shut down and the discussion threads in them deleted. In the writings that survived the purge, an image of a fearless thinker emerges.
Writer and liberal activist Raif Badawi first set up the Saudi Liberals online discussion forum in 2006 to foster political and social debate about the role of religion in the kingdom. According to his wife, Ensaf Haidar, he considered the forum just the first step in a larger, more ambitious “intellectual project” whereby he hoped to bring together like-minded individuals in Saudi Arabia to promote the need for liberal reform. By 2008, Badawi’s forum had over a 1,000 registered and active members discussing religion, secularism, politics, and women’s rights; the eyes of the authorities were upon him.
In March of that year, he was detained on apostasy charges (which can carry a death sentence) and released after questioning. The government moved to shut down his website and they later banned him from traveling and froze his assets.
In 2009, Badawi created a new online forum, The Free Saudi Liberals Network, and wrote extensively on sensitive issues despite the Saudi government’s determination to suppress dissent.
On 17 June 2012, he was arrested again in Jeddah for his role in trying to organize a conference to mark a “day for Saudi liberals”. The conference, which was planned for 7 May, was banned by the authorities.
In July 2013, he was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison and 600 lashes on charges of “founding a liberal website”, “adopting liberal thought” and “insulting Islam”. The Free Saudi Liberals website was subsequently shut down.
Badawi’s lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair – now serving a 15-year prison sentence himself – appealed the decision, but on 7 May 2014, Jeddah’s Criminal Court increased Badawi’s sentence to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (approx. US$266,631). He was also given a 10-year travel ban and a 10-year ban on participating in audio, electronic and written media.
On 7 June 2015, the Saudi Supreme Court upheld his sentence, leaving no room for appeal. “The only real chance to have him freed would be a royal pardon by King Salman,” said Amnesty spokesperson Nicolas Krameyer.
Badawi received the first set of 50 lashes on 9 January 2015; subsequent sessions scheduled to take place weekly have been continuously postponed because of concerns for his health. Badawi’s wife wrote a letterto King Salman on the third anniversary of Badawi’s arrest, pleading with him to stay his punishment of 1000 lashes and to pardon her husband.
International support for Badawi has not waned. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, European Union leaders and U.S. political leaders have spoken against his incarceration. Amnesty International and PEN Canada have campaigned for his case and millions of protesters, activists, and journalists around the world have called for his immediate and unconditional release.