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Jailed Saudi blogger wins Sakharov Prize. Will it help?

History suggests international pressure – such as this EU human rights prize – won't necessarily secure Raif Badawi's release from a Saudi jail - but it might stop the flogging. 

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    Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for insulting Islam and for cyber crime, was awarded the European Union's Sakharov prize for human rights and freedom of thought on October 29, 2015.
    Reuters via Amnesty International
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A Saudi blogger and activist sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam has been awarded the European Union’s esteemed prize for human rights.

Raif Badawi was sentenced in 2012 for a blog he wrote questioning the country’s staunch religious practices based on Wahhabi Islam. Saudi Arabia does not allow other faiths to be worshipped, while a new law imposed in 2014 treats atheism as a crime on par with terrorism.

The European Parliament awarded Badawi the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Launched in 1988, the prize is given to in support of “exceptional contributions to human rights.”

Badawi, 31, was initially sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in prison for insulting Islam on his now-shuttered website "Free Saudi Liberals." His sentence was increased and he received 50 lashes in January before the flogging was temporarily suspended.

His wife, Ensaf Haidar, posted this week from Canada on a website used to promote Badawi’s freedom that the lashes were soon set to resume despite her husband’s poor health.

“He wanted dialogue among people,” she said, to Agence France-Presse. “He wanted free speech and rights for women and all human beings. This is what always motivated him.”

European Parliament President Martin Schulz indicated Badawi’s actions and punishment made him a clear choice for the award.

“This man, who is an extremely good man and an exemplary good man had had imposed on him one of the most gruesome penalties that exist in this country which can only be described as brutal torture,” he said. “I call on the Saudi king to immediately free him.”

But will the award and calls for leniency from Western nations help Badawi gain his freedom – or a suspension of flogging?

Soon after the Arab Spring began in 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia furthered a strict adherence to Islam as a reason to crackdown on dissent and freedoms of expression.

Columbia University's Gary Sick, a former White House National Security Council staffer, said in January that mounting problems in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen, combined with dropping oil prices, have taken precedence over free speech for the Saudis.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour, soon after Badawi’s first 50 lashes, Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch said there was little to show from the Obama administration's claims in January that gradual and consistent diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia has been successful. 

“I don’t think that an effective way of countering extremism and terrorism in the region is to be closely aligned with an authoritarian government, which has in the past and continues to promote ideology and sectarianism and intolerance in the region,” he said.

The British government has been the subject of similar criticism: “Why do ministers keep wearing the Saudi muzzle,” asked Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty International. 

Analogous assertions have also been made about the Western world’s gumption in pressuring Egypt, Iran, and China for their detentions of journalists and activists.

Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese professor, writer, and human activist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while serving an 11-year prison sentence for his part in forming an online petition calling for changes in Chinese government. He remains imprisoned today, with no contact to the outside world.

Still, the fact  the Saudi government suspended the flogging of Badawi leaves some optimism international pressure will prevail in easing his sentence.

Some credit the steady outcry by world leaders and international human rights groups in January as the reason for a delay in Badawi’s punishment. Activists hope the award may again cause a clamor for his release.

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