The results are in. The winner of this year’s noble peace prize was the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. But there were many inspirational candidates in the running, some of which who even put their lives on the line for the work of peace. One such candidate was a man who people around the world are leading street protests, petitions, letters, and social media activity for the liberation of– Ra’if Badawi, an activist and writer from Saudi Arabia.
There aren’t many nations left in the world that can legally sentence a man to a public flogging. For those that do, it isn’t the kind of place where freedom of speech can be found in spades, or even much at all. So when Badawi launched the Free Saudi Liberals Website in 2008, it didn’t take long for the Saudi Arabian government to find out.
Free Saudi Liberals– a site littered with photos of lashings that citizens were forced to endure, opinions and satire against the government, scarring memories of war shared from the recount of American soldiers, and even videos of locals beating up captured ISIS terrorists– is far from pretty, but, sometimes, neither is the truth. For Badawi, this wasn’t a religious venture, as he himself was a practicing Muslim; his site was built to allow forum for political debate and a way to express what he and others like him feels as a need for political and social reformation in order to establish peace and prosperity in their nation. It was these opinions, contrary to the voice Saudi government at large, that got Badawi into hot water. Badawi was detained the same year as his site’s launch but was released after a day of questioning. His site was hacked several times, publishing his phone numbers, work address and threats on his life. Prosecution service in Jeddah charged Badawi with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam” and asked for a five year prison sentence and a fine of 3 million riyal ($800,000 USD).
Despite government pressure, Badawi continued to run his site and write frequently. In 2009, the government banned him from leaving the country and froze his bank accounts. The family of Badawi’s wife even tried to forcibly divorce the couple due to his alleged act of apostasy, the act of abandoning Islam. Still, Badawi wasn’t silenced; he spoke his mind on the matters of his nation up to his arrest in 2012.
Badawi appeared before a district court in Jeddah on December 17, 2012, charged with “setting up a website that undermines general security,” ridiculing Islamic figures,” and going beyond the realm of obedience.” The judge referred him to a higher court on the charge of apostasy, for which he couldn’t give a verdict. The case was handed back and forth until news let out on July 30, 2013, that Badawi had been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for founding an internet forum that “violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought.”In 2014, Badawi was resentenced to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a fine of 1 million riyal ($267,000) for “insulting Islam.”
Waleed Abulkhair, Badawi’s lawyer (later sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and a 15 year ban from travel for organizing a Saudi human rights organization) who fought against charges of apostasy, told BBC that his client had confirmed in court that he was Muslim but told the judge, “everyone has a choice to believe or not believe.” Soon after this, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf received multiple anonymous death threats and fled to Canada with her three children.
Most recently, Badawi’s case was passed to the Saudi Supreme Court for review. Ensaf told reporters that judges in Saudia Arabia want to retry him for apostasy. If found guilty, he will be sentenced to death.
This year, Reporters Without Boarders awarded Badawi the Press Freedom Prize. The organization has gathered almost 50,000 signatures since December 2014 for a petition urging King Salman to pardon Badawi. Further efforts pleading his pardon have come from around the world including Prince Charles, UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Canadian politician Marc Garneau, 18 Nobel laureates, Germany’s Minister of Economic Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, and Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallstrom.