Five Years On: Keeping the Spotlight on Raif Badawi

This guest blog by Katie O’Leary (LLM International Human Rights Law & Public Policy, 2020-21) examines the continued imprisonment of Raif Badawi who was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2015.

This month, Saudi Arabia hosts the G20 summit, a meeting of the leaders of the world’s largest economies.  It is an opportunity for what Human Rights Watch has called “image laundering”: a chance for Saudi Arabia to attempt to clean up its image as a grave abuser of human rights.  The continued imprisonment of Raif Badawi, the 2015 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, is one of many reasons why the world should see through the ploy.  Badawi is a husband and father of three children who was arrested in 2012 for defending freedom of expression.  He has been publicly punished, and remains in prison despite ill health.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with human rights has been well documented, from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, to the use of mutilation as a punishment in its criminal justice system, a practice that seems barbaric to many external observers.  The condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s practices is not just external, however.  Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen who was murdered for his critique of the Saudi administration.  Raif Badawi is his compatriot who has also been persecuted for his opposition to the actions of that regime. 

Badawi founded a network called Saudi Liberals and a website called Free Saudi Liberals, a discussion forum on religion and politics in Saudi Arabia.  Despite a fatwa being issued against him in response to the creation of that forum, he continued to speak in defence of free expression until he was arrested in 2012.  He has been in prison since then, in conditions so poor that he has protested using hunger strikes.  Concerns for his safety were sparked earlier this year too when he fell out of contact with his family for a period.  In addition to a ten-year prison sentence, Badawi was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes to be delivered in intervals. To date, he has received fifty, a punishment that amounts to a flagrant breach of Saudi Arabia’s commitments under the UN Convention against Torture. A medical examination after the imposition of that penalty concluded that he would not survive another flogging.  His health, and public outcry, are some of the reasons why the corporal punishment aspect of his sentence has not been carried out in full.  Badawi’s case was the last high profile infliction of public flogging in Saudi Arabia; the state abolished that penalty from its criminal justice system earlier this year.  However, other forms of corporal punishment remain on its statute books.

Badawi’s case shows Saudi Arabia’s contempt for a swathe of human rights, including the right to liberty, the right to be free from torture, and the right to health.  Above all else, it highlights a systemic interference with freedom of expression.  Ensaf Haidar, Badawi’s wife, summarised the spirit of that right in a video posted this year.  She said, “I believe in the freedom of the individual and freedom of opinion – and am ready to fight for this right, even if this should benefit those who hold differing opinions than I do.” Badawi was sentenced under a 2007 Anti-Cybercrime Law, which criminalises online activity “impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.”  This means that his only crime was communicating his views, something he has consistently defended his right to do.  It is easy to see, therefore, why he has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was voted as the winner of the 2015 Sakharov Prize, an award that recognises achievement in defending free expression.  The award was named for Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet nuclear physicist who was sent into exile for publishing his concerns about the potential consequences of his work on the hydrogen bomb.  In the tradition of Andrei Sakharov, Badawi has foregone his freedom, his family life, and his health to express his own convictions in defiance of a regime that disregards humanity.

His case is still in the spotlight, due to Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the G20 summit, and continued efforts by his wife and supporters to secure his release.  In September, a group of fifty German-speaking writers petitioned the German president to intervene in his case.  His family are living in Canada under political asylum, and on 19 November, there were calls in that country’s parliament for his case to be raised at the G20 summit by the Canadian representatives.  Moreover, Badawi’s is not an isolated case; it is emblematic of a theme of persecution.  Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned continued repression of government critics in their reports on Saudi Arabia in 2019.

Another reason why it is timely to reflect on Badawi’s case is that his work highlights the way technology can be used to exercise freedom of expression and further the defence of human rights. The specific circumstances of 2020 have brought focus to the importance of the internet to activism.  That trend pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic, but is highlighted in a context that complicates traditional forms of activism, such as public assembly. The Black Lives Matter campaign shows how technology can globalise an issue; social media has been used to great effect in that movement to highlight a failure that permeates systems around the world.  Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for the climate have moved online too, in an effort to keep momentum going for the viral campaign strategy.  A further illustration of the role of technology in activism can be found by considering its use by supporters of the Belarus opposition, this year’s winners of the Sakharov Prize.  Those activists met the challenge of internet blackouts imposed by Lukashenko’s regime through the use of alternative messaging apps and continued to protest the government whose legitimacy they challenge.  The attempt by the Belarusian government to interfere with their ability to communicate online shows that this form of communication is a serious inconvenience to authoritarian regimes.  The fact that technology assisted in the organisation of those protests highlights its usefulness to activism. 

Similarly, Raif Badawi used the internet in his defence of human rights, by publishing blog posts from within the borders of Saudi Arabia to report on the actions of its regime.  This is a powerful form of activism, as it not only communicates local information about human rights abuses, it also shows that human rights norms have support within Saudi Arabia, and it is not just external observers who would seek to impose them.  His supporters have also campaigned for his release using social media.  In January 2015, following Badawi’s flogging, the hashtag “JeSuisRaif” trended on Twitter.  His wife has over 100,000 Twitter followers, and actively posts in support of his freedom.  His own use of technology, as well as the campaigns run by his supporters on social media, shows its efficacy in highlighting rights abuses and how it can contribute to changes in practice.  Since the international outcry following Badawi’s flogging and his award of the Sakharov Prize, the penalty has been abolished in Saudi Arabia as part of its efforts to clean up its human rights record. A national parliament is discussing his case, and it may be raised before a summit of world leaders this month.

While technology can be used to great effect by activists, it is worth bearing in mind that the use of technology in activism has certain risks, too.  Law enforcement can use online platforms to track activists, whether through publicly available information, or by compelling the production of information under legal orders.  This can have a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of expression.  The issue is exemplified by the use of social media by US law enforcement to track Black Lives Matter protestors, and by Badawi’s case, too: his imprisonment is solely on the basis of his online activities. Raif Badawi’s imprisonment and torture show that pressure should not be lifted from Saudi Arabia while it attempts to portray itself as a respectable modern economy.  His work and the support for his case highlight the present and the future of the media of activism.  Above anything else, he is the embodiment of free expression.  In spite of the cruellest forms of persecution, he has continued to speak his mind, and to defend his right to do that in the strongest terms: “Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts.” It has been five years since Badawi won the Sakharov Prize, but these reasons show why it is crucial to keep his case in the spotlight, and to continue to pressure the Saudi government for his immediate release.