In the wake of the Biden administration’s release of a damning intelligence report directly linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the brutal murder and dismemberment of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi authorities are intensifying their persecution of political prisoners with impunity. One of those prisoners is journalist and blogger Raif Badawi.
Arrested on spurious charges in June 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, Badawi is now being targeted with yet another investigation, we have learned. Imprisoned by previous Saudi authorities — and having never been publicly critical of Saudi leadership, nor the current crown prince — he is nonetheless being investigated for “inciting public opinion” and “harming the reputation of the Kingdom.” But it is Badawi’s unjust imprisonment and this new investigation against him that are further tarnishing the kingdom’s reputation.
An advocate of religious pluralism, respect for minorities and normalization with Israel, Badawi has been persecuted for peacefully and passionately promoting views that have since become mainstream, a testament to his principled tenacity. Celebrated internationally for his work, Badawi has been recognized with Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Prize, with PEN’s Pinter Prize and One Humanity Award, with the Franco-German Journalism Prize, by the International Publishers Association, and by press clubs in cities across North America, among many others. His writing represents the very best of Saudi Arabia and brings honor to the kingdom. It is his sham trial and unjust treatment that bring shame.
As the Biden administration seeks to expand regional peace agreements and curtail the kingdom’s human rights abuses, Badawi’s just case and cause present an opportunity to meaningfully advance both goals. Advocating on his behalf should be a matter of principle and policy for President Biden.
On the other hand, continued indifference or indulgence of Badawi’s brutal treatment risks a ripple effect. It was the inaction of the international community in response to Saudi Arabia’s bullying of Canada that first paved the path to Khashoggi’s murder. In 2018, when Canada spoke out on behalf of Badawi and his sister Samar Badawi, a leader of the women’s rights movement who has also been imprisoned, the crown prince erupted in fury, punitively pursuing sanctions and publicly issuing threats. When Canada appealed to our democratic allies for solidarity, it was met with silence. The muted response to the kingdom’s malign activities was surely received with relief in Riyadh — and likely viewed as license to continue without consequence. Khashoggi was killed shortly thereafter.
While silence can be fatal, concerted public pressure helps secure freedom for political prisoners, as we have seen with the recent release of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Public interventions also inspire hope in the hearts of those otherwise filled with despair as they endure the darkness and depredations of the kingdom’s dungeons.
This includes all the other leaders of the women’s rights movement who remain behind bars, such as Samar Badawi. The recipient in 2012 of a top award from the State Department during the Obama administration, Samar Badawi has not received any support since then from U.S. authorities, though the prize contributed to her targeting by Saudi authorities.
It also includes Raif Badawi’s brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair, who is currently jailed on a jarring 15-year sentence simply for having served as Raif Badawi’s lawyer. It includes far too many more who, like Raif Badawi, languish in detention for daring to imagine a brighter future for their families.
In breaking his silence and speaking out for them, Biden would also be building on bipartisan consensus — a remarkable rarity in a politically polarizing environment. Members of Congress have issued numerous appeals and public letters and adopted a joint resolution of the House and Senate calling for the release of the Badawis and Raif Badawi’s reunification with his family in Canada.
Beyond its dividends for peace and justice, Raif Badawi’s overdue release would be a life-changing development for his three young children, who were forced to flee to Canada as refugees and who are growing up without their father. It would be similarly transformative for his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who has been raising them as a single mother, and who is herself now being targeted by this new Saudi investigation.
Raif Badawi is not a criminal, but a courageous advocate of coexistence. He should be lauded, rather than lashed, for his leadership. As we near Raif Badawi’s ninth year of unjust imprisonment, Biden should make clear that the time for his freedom has finally come.