Saudi Arabia is once again in the news for its treatment of dissenters.
This time it’s Raif Badawi, 31, a liberal Saudi activist that questioned religion and the governmental authorities on his Arabic language blog.
Badawi was arrested in 2012 for a variety of crimes, including apostasy, criticizing government and disobeying his father’s orders. He came to the attention of authorities after starting a website that criticized the Saudi government and the Wahhabist strain of Islam that heavily influences the country’s laws and social norms.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes with a cane in 2013 but the sentence was later increased to 10 years and 1,000 lashes.
His case has become an important cause among human rights activists and Western journalists. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece about Badawi last January.
On Thursday, Badawi was back in the spotlight – along with Saudi Arabia’s brutal police and prison regime – after winning the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which honors people and groups that champion human rights and democracy.
“On the case of Mr. Badawi, fundamental rights are not only not being respected, they are being trodden underfoot,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said Thursday in France.
This was indeed a stick in the eye to Saudi Arabia by Europe’s rambunctious parliament but it’s unlikely to change the minds in Riyadh.
In one way Badawi was lucky. He was found not guilty of apostasy, which carries a death sentence in Saudi Arabia.
Others have not been so lucky. Saudi Arabia has executed 135 people this year, the majority of which for nonviolent drug offences.
Ali al-Nimr, a 17-year old Saudi Shia, was recently arrested and sentenced to crucifixion for his role in a demonstration for greater rights for the Shia minority in the eastern part of the country. Al-Nimr was arrested a year after the 2011 protests and held for nine months before going to trial. It is believed he was tortured during his questioning and was forced to sign a confession. He wasn’t given proper legal representation during his trial, according to Human Rights Watch.
Al-Nimr could be crucified then beheaded any day if Saudi Arabia’s new leader doesn’t step in before it happens. Given the intense international scrutiny, it is hoped that the government will relent.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world and, despite signing agreements not to subject minors to the death penalty, it remains defiant over their right to do so.
The country also has no religious freedom and strict limits on freedom of speech, particularly if it is used to criticize religion. Indeed, bad mouthing Islam (other religions are fair game) will likely get you a lengthy prison sentence or beatings – or worse.
Most nations have been loathe to criticize Saudi Arabia because of its strategic oil wealth and its powerful role in the region, particularly among Sunni Muslim nations.
That might be changing given the United States’ decreasing demand for foreign oil, declining prices and a possible détente with Shia Iran among Western nations.
Saudi Arabia needs to change its ways not only to maintain the goodwill of the world when it won’t be needed for its resource wealth but also for the long-term good of its people, and the region’s people.
In a prescient post on his blog in 2010, Badawi wrote:
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.