Badawi’s Absence Is a Presence at Prize Ceremony

Raif is not a criminal. He is a writer and a free thinker: that is all. Raif Badawi’s crime is being a free voice in a country which does not accept anything other than a single opinion and a single thought.”—Ensaf Haidar

Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, accepted the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, this morning. Badawi’s absence was itself a presence at the ceremony. He remains in Dhaban Central Prison, where he was moved late last week, as I reported here at the time.

Badawi is the young Saudi writer who was found guilty of “insulting Islam” in his essays on his website and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes with a cane. On January 9, 2015, the first set of 50 blows was delivered in a public whipping. He has not been caned since. The international movement on his behalf, sparked by a young wife’s determination to make the world know her imprisoned husband’s name, led Amnesty International to declare months ago that it has received more signatures for petitions demanding his release than any other in its long and remarkable history. As far as I am concerned, Ensaf Haidar should be on every publication’s end-of-year list of Most Heroic People of 2015.

The European Parliament’s press release about the ceremony noted that Badawi is not the first honoree who was unable to accept the award in person; Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist in Myanmar, won the citation in 1990 when she was under house arrest and forbidden from leaving her country. In 2013, she was able to receive the prize in person. One hopes that Raif Badawi also is able to receive the prize in person someday and that a generation will not pass until that day. But one knows that the ongoing fight for justice and freedom of thought is, at its heart, supremely patient.

In an interview today, Ensaf Haidar said that she briefly hoped that winning the Sakharov Prize might be what would free him. She has learned, she added, not to live from hope to hope, though.

I wrote last week, “The poetic moment in which the winner of the Sakharov Prize, Raif Badawi, arrives to collect the prize and speak out for human rights and freedom of speech is one that many people have scripted for themselves in their hopes and hearts. It will not take place. If, and this is a large if, a pardon from King Salman is in fact to be granted to Raif Badawi, it will come after that prize ceremony—after the attention to Raif Badawi’s absence at the ceremony has passed. This is what many sources in the Free Raif Badawi movement have spoken of to me. The eyes of the world are watching every movement Saudi Arabia makes in this story … and even more importantly, many other human rights stories.”

Three weeks ago, the Swiss Foreign Minister, Yves Rossier, reported that “a royal pardon is in the works thanks to the head of state, King Salman.” However, in June, Badawi’s sentence of 10 years and 1000 lashes was upheld. The only legal means available to release him is a royal pardon.

The international outcry from common citizens and political leaders alike, the vast attention from the human rights community about this story—a belief in freedom of thought and expression, a revulsion to corporal or even capital punishment for writing—appeared to put the Saudi justice system in a bind: to resume the caning would be a nose-thumbing at the international community. But to free him without anything less than a royal pardon would call into question the authority of the Saudi justice system in that nation’s own domestic politics.

The Badawi case led, I believe, to international attention on Saudi Arabia’s anti-freedom human rights record and to consternation about the pre-medieval judicial system of its form of Sharia law, in which thoughts can be deemed worthy of beheading. Other cases that may not have attracted as much international attention have joined Raif Badawi’s name in the headlines. At the European Parliament today, some of those other names were brought up by Martin Schulz, the President of the Parliament: specifically, Waleed Abu al-Khair, Abdulkarim Al-Khodr, Ashraf Fayadh and Ali Mohammed al-Nimr.

Waleed Abu al-Khair is Raif Badawi’s lawyer and his brother-in-law. He has been in jail for years (he was arrested while arguing in court), and he has begun to accumulate more and more noteworthy human rights prizes himself; he won this year’s Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize and his lawyer spoke at the prize ceremony several weeks ago. (Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi, is Waleed’s wife, and she is as much a human rights powerhouse as her sister-in-law Ensaf: she still resides in Saudi Arabia, where she participated in the 2011 campaign to allow women to drive in that country. Saudi Arabia has refused to allow her to leave the country.)

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr is one of several young Saudis who were arrested at protests, found guilty of crimes that include terrorism, and sentenced to die by beheading and have their bodies crucified. Just over three weeks ago, reports emerged that the executions had been approved. Two weeks ago, it was rumored that the executions had been scheduled for December 1. More rumors, about pardons for some of them, have followed.

Each of these individuals languishes in prison and awaits the day he learns the time, place, and manner of his fate. A split in the Saudi judicial system’s personality seems to be coming clear, from an outsider’s perspective, as it negotiates for itself a way between an unreasoning hard-line, anti-humanitarian, stance and joining the international community.

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