In recent weeks, protesters gathered around the world to draw attention to Raif Badawi, a blogger who was imprisoned in 2014 by the Saudi government. His supposed crime? Nothing more than writing blog posts that called for greater religious tolerance and dared to imagine a freer future for the Saudi people.
Jan. 13 was Raif’s birthday – his eighth behind bars. As advocates for Raif through the prisoner of conscience projects of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, we once again condemn his brutal and unjust imprisonment at the hands of the Saudi government. We ask the Trump administration to petition Saudi Arabia to grant Raif clemency and release both Raif and his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair.
Saudi Arabia’s severe mistreatment of its citizens has long concerned Americans and their elected officials. Non-Muslim people in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from public communal worship. Many are thrown in prison, subjected to inhumane conditions and reportedly victimized by torture. Raif is but one victim of this brutal and unjust system.
In 2008, Raif founded the blog Free Saudi Liberals where he and others debated political and religious issues in Saudi Arabia. His punishment for such a daring act? In 2012, he was charged with insulting Islam and “apostasy,” a capital offense. While the latter charge was dropped, he was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison, a huge fine, and the cruel and unnecessary torture of 1,000 lashes with a whip. The first 50 of the lashes were delivered in January, 2015. Since then, international pressure and concerns over his medical state have spared him further flogging. But when Vice President Mike Pence publicly called for Badawi’s release last July, the Saudi government took away Raif’s books and denied him access to crucial medicine until international outcry forced them temporarily to reconsider. In early January, both Raif and his lawyer were re-admitted to the hospital after their prison mistreatment restarted. The administration has not commented publicly on any of these developments.
Saudi Arabia’s detention of Badawi is a further stain on the Kingdom’s already-abysmal human rights record. From a 12-year prison sentence imposed on Shi’a minor Murtaja Qureiris for leading a bicycle protest, to the alleged torture of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, to the brutal murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has made clear time and again that they do not respect or value the basic human rights to which all people are entitled.
Despite all this negative news, there is a bright spot. There is bipartisan support in Congress for bills opposing U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses. To avoid further fallout, the Kingdom should not only continue the political reforms it has publicly touted (but only slowly implemented). They also need to grant clemency to Raif, Waleed, and other Saudis whose peaceful expression of their beliefs is consistent with Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And the Trump administration should keep working for Raif’s release. We believe the administration should also not only continue to designate Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” for its systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), but also stop waiving the related sanctions. An administration that claims to prioritize religious freedom must not give Saudi Arabia a free pass to harass Christians, incite violence against Jews, jail non-believers, and execute those who interpret Islam differently. Only in the face of real consequences will countries like Saudi Arabia be forced to free prisoners like Raif Badawi.
Nadine Maenza is Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Congressman James McGovern is the chairman of the House Rules Committee and Democratic Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. He represents the Second Congressional District of Massachusetts.