The U.S. called on Saudi Arabia to release imprisoned liberal blogger Raif Badawi. It was a rare departure from the usual stance of the U.S., which normally refrains from critiquing the human rights record of U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia.
Speaking at a religious freedom conference in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence singled out Badawi’s case for the first time along with three other political prisoners: a 90-year-old Orthodox Church patriarch detained in Eritrea, Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir and Pakistani lecturer Junair Hafeez.
“All four of these men have stood in defense of religious liberty — the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure. And the American people stand with them,” the vice president said.
“So today the United States of America calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to respect the rights of conscience of these men and let these men go.”
Bawadi’s case made international headlines beginning in June 2012 when he was originally imprisoned and sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in prison, including three month’s imprisonment for “parental disobedience.” He was also ordered to pay a fine of $266,000.
Yet, after an appeal, in 2014, a higher court later raised the sentence to 1,000 lashes, 10 years imprisonment and a fine of $218,000 for “insulting Islam.”
In January 2015, he received the first 50 out of 1,000 lashes. The whipping was meted out publicly near the al-Jafali Mosque after Friday prayers. Subsequent lashing was scheduled to take place every Friday, but the next week, a doctor said Badawi could not withstand more lashings and they were suspended.
Badawi’s punishments were condemned by international human rights groups and governments worldwide. Yet despite international condemnation and calls to desist, the Saudi government upheld the sentence. Now, Badawi’s only recourse is a pardon from the king.
Badawi’s “crime” was moderating an internet forum that encouraged participants to voice their opinion about religion in the kingdom. He founded the online forum “Free Saudi Liberals” in 2008 which encouraged open debate about issues that are normally considered taboo in the heavily regulated Wahhabi kingdom.
Ensaf Haidar, Badawi’s wife was able to escape the kingdom with their three children after being threatened with her life. She and the children were granted asylum in Canada, from where she has acted as an endless advocate for her husband.
Haidar thanked Pence for his speech, saying, “I have a lot of hope now,” she said.
The vice president @VP 🇺🇸
— Ensaf Haidar ⚜️🍁 (@miss9afi) July 18, 2019