Saudi blogger Raïf Badawi receives Sakharov Price (in abstentia) from the Strasbourg European Parliament

NEWS – On the 16th of December 2015, the European Parliament awards the Sakharov price for human rights to the exiled wife of Raïf Badawi at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, a financial fine and to be submitted to 1000 lashes in public display. Badawi’s case is one among many other appalling human rights violations perpetrated by Saudis’ authorities and judiciary. However, due to the essential military, energetic and religious role embodied by the Al-Saud’s Kingdom, it avoids any tangible condemnation from the international community.


The Sakharov price was created in 1988 by the European parliament, seating in Strasbourg (France) to award eminent defenders of Human rights and the freedom of thought. Its entitlement belongs to the Soviet physicist and dissident, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov (1921-1989), whose admirable fight for the respect of human rights inspired the European deputies. The Sakharov price was already received by prominent historical figures such as Nelson Mandela, Alexander Dubcek and the Argentinian Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo.

Raïf Badawi, the plight of a free voice in Saudi Arabia

As a young activist who opened a blog entitled the “Saudi Free Liberals Forum”, which criticised Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, Badawi was arrested by the police in 20121. Obviously, the Saudi authorities decided to shut down his blog after his arrest. The New York Times explains that he was charged with “insulting Islam, apostasy, cybercrime and disobeying his father”2. Ian Black from The Guardian analysed his writings and found an inspiring reflection on the role of religion in the Saudi society with for instance this extract: “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”. As a result of his free thinking, in 2014, after a second trial, Badawi was convicted to 10 years of jail, pay a financial fine and receive 1000 lashes with a cane. The charge of apostasy was not admitted by the court, otherwise he would have faced the death penalty. And on the 9th of January 2015, Badawi was humiliated publicly in front of a Mosque in Jeddah, after being flogged the first 50 lashes of his sentence. In the meantime, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and his children were forced to flee from the Kingdom and ask for asylum in Canada, which accepted their request in 2013. His wife confirmed recently to Reuters that Badawi was on hunger strike since the 8th of December 2015 and had been “transferred to a new isolated prison”3. The young blogger expressed his disarray after such a harmful experience: “All this cruel suffering happened to me only because I expressed my opinion”4. Moreover, Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, was also condemned to 15 years in jail “on charges of undermining the government, inciting public opinion and insulting the judiciary”5. The latter had previously founded the organization Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s “poor” record on Human rights

When declaring the choice for the Sakharov price, the president of the European Parliament, the German social-democrat Martin Schultz said that “in the case of Mr. Badawi, fundamental human rights are not only not being respected, they are being trodden underfoot”6. On the 16th of December 2015, when receiving the price in the name of her husband, Ensaf Haidar acknowledged that “in [her] country, a free and enlightened thought is considered blasphemous. This is the ideology of some of our Arabic societies”7.

But Badawi’s situation is not a single case of human rights’ violations in a country applying the death penalty, the Sharia law and its jurisprudence.

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr is reportedly facing a death sentence “by crucifixion” for participating in an anti-government demonstration when he was only aged 17. The Guardian precises that the Wahhabi monarchy has ordered the beheadings of more than a hundred individuals for the year 2015 only8.

Ashraf Fayadh, is a Palestinian poet and artist residing in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty international explains that he was condemned to the death penalty for “apostasy”, implying that his poems were, according to the Saudi judiciary, threatening Islam through an atheist propaganda9.

A 45 years old Sri Lankan maid was convicted of adultery in August 201510. She was sentenced to “death by stoning” and the Sri Lankan man with whom she, presumably, had an affair will be submitted to 100 lashes. This sentence will be reconsidered as the Saudi authorities just agreed to a retry thanks to the diplomatic pressure from Sri Lanka.

This are a few examples depicting the deplorable state of human rights in Saudi Arabia. Women have just, for the very first time, been allowed to vote and be elected to the municipal elections, while they still cannot drive their own car or open a bank account and travel abroad without the approval of a male relative. The Gulf News reports from Bahrain that cinemas are still forbidden in the Al-Saud’s Kingdom as they could cause “deep rifts and grave problems within the society”11. As such, the Freedom House grants Saudi Arabia the lowest ranking in the world for the respect of fundamental freedoms, civil liberties and political rights12. Human Rights Watch adds to this grim portrayal that Saudi authorities “try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities”13.

The Al-Saud Kingdom’s crucial role in the Middle-East as an excuse for its behaviour

However, the United Nations’ bodies and international media hardly focused, up to now, on the mistreatment of human rights in Saudi Arabia. The largest monarchy in the Middle-East is such a crucial player in the Middle-Eastern and world affairs that it can hold a sense of impunity on this matter. In the last decades, European governments, such as the United-Kingdom and France, have built strategic military partnerships with Riyadh. In an op-ed in The Telegraph, the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia recalls the “importance of Saudi Arabia to the UK and the Middle East’s security, as well as its vital role in the larger Arab world as the epicentre of Islam”14. The British Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond even stated at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this year that “Gulf security is UK security”15. In the meantime, France and Saudi Arabia reaffirmed their strategic partnership thanks to their shared vision for the Middle-Eastern affairs (fate of Bashar el-Assad, Iran’s nuclear threat, Lebanon’s sovereignty…)16. Riyadh, disappointed by the lack of audacity from the American President Barack Obama on the Syrian conflict, opened its doors (and military equipment markets) to Paris and its proactive diplomacy in the Middle-East17. The developing economic and energetic relations between European countries and Saudi Arabia creates a paradoxical situation about human rights. European diplomacies tend to avoid this subject in exchange for generous contracts for European companies and investors in the Gulf. Meanwhile, regionally, Saudi Arabia carries a controversial military intervention in Yemen against the Houthi rebellion (Shias), supported by the Iranian Islamic Republic18. Saudi Arabia has become an essential and key partner to solve regional conflicts dividing the Middle-East, and the West cannot avoid it.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia is conscious of its poor image in terms of human rights among Western public opinions. Then, it has decided to be active in the UN bodies in order to slowly reverse this negative image and, maybe, counteract any attempt against its domestic affairs. The Wahhabi monarchy was elected chair of the Human Rights Council Panel in 2015 and seats since 2013 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, alongside 46 other member states19. Hillel Neuer, the director of the organization UN Watch declared that: “It is scandalous that the UN chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to be head of a key human rights panel”20. Leaked diplomatic documents to Wikileaks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia even confirmed that the United-Kingdom proposed to support the Saudi seat at the HRC in Geneva in exchange for the Kingdom’s support to the British candidacy21. This shows that beyond the awfulness of the violations of the human rights in Saudi Arabia, the priority for European and Western governments (except Sweden) remains to keep excellent diplomatic and economic relations with a considerable world player. However, the raising awareness of the discriminations and inequalities among the Saudi society embodies a real hope for (incremental) change in the coming years. Badawi and this slim share of the Saudi civil society are forcing the monarchy to rethink the extent of its authoritarian rule as it risks to progressively erode its political legitimacy.

Jean-Baptiste Allegrini – Research assistant at the CIPADH.


1 Black, Ian (14/01/2015), “A look at the writings of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes”, The Guardian, London.
2 Chan, Sewell (29/10/2015), “Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi Gets Sakharov Prize, Top E.U. Human Rights Award”, The New York Times, New York.
3 The Telegraph (10/12/2015), “Imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi on hunger strike, wife says”, TheTelegraph/Reuters, London.
4 Tran, Mark (29/10/2015), “Raif Badawi wins EU's Sakharov human rights prize”, The Guardian, London.
5 Chan, Sewell (29/10/2015), Ibid.
6 Chan, Sewell (29/10/2015), Ibid.
7 Le Monde (16/12/2015), « La femme de Raef Badaoui, blogueur saoudien emprisonné, reçoit le prix Sakharov en son nom », AFP/Reuters, Paris.
8 Bowcott, Owen (29/09/2015), « UK and Saudi Arabia 'in secret deal' over human rights council place”, The Guardian, London.
9 Amnesty International UK (2015), “Free Ashraf, Poet facing execution in Saudi Arabia”, Amnesty International UK, London.
10 The Telegraph (08/12/2015), « Saudi Arabia to retry Sri Lanka maid sentenced to death by stoning for adultery”, TheTelegraph/AFP, London.
11 Toumi, Habib (14/12/2015), “Riyadh denies plans to open cinemas”, Gulf News, Manama.
12 Freedom House (2015), « Saudi Arabia », Freedom House, Washington.
13 Human Rights Watch (2015), “World Report 2015: Saudi Arabia”, Human Rights Watch, New York.
14 Bin Nawaf Bin Abulaziz, Mohammed (25/10/2015), “How Saudi Arabia helps Britain keep the peace”, The Telegraph, London.
15 Bin Nawaf Bin Abulaziz, Mohammed (25/10/2015), Ibid.
16 France Diplomatie (20/10/2015), « La France et l’Arabie Saoudite », Ministère des Affaires Etrangères et du Développement International, Paris.
17 Falez, Nicolas (13/10/2015), « France-Arabie saoudite: entente politique et gros contrats », RFI, Paris.
18 Reardon, martin (26/03/2015), “Saudi Arabia, Iran and the 'Great Game' in Yemen”, Al Jazeera, Doha.
19 BBC News (13/11/2013), “Concerns over new UN Human Rights Council members”, BBC, London.
20 UN Watch (20/09/2015), “Again: Saudi Arabia Elected Chair of UN Human Rights Council Panel”, UN Watch, Geneva.
21 Bowcott, Owen (29/09/2015), Ibid.