“We want to lead normal lives, lives where our religion and our traditions translate into tolerance.”
“For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan.”
Who could have imagined that these equally conciliatory concepts would result in such conflicting consequences?
Yet in Saudi Arabia, the advocate of one is heralded as a reformer, while the other is harassed for being a radical.
Indeed, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamed bin Salman said the former; imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the latter.
Born one year apart, these millennials have given expression to the vision and values of a younger generation, one that is empowered by the digital age, implicated in a globalizing world and impervious to the religious orthodoxy of some clerical elite.
However, while the Crown Prince travels the world touting a transformed Kingdom, Badawi has languished in a Saudi prison for almost six years now, for professing his vision for remaking the region.
Using a blog to exercise his right to freedom of expression, Badawi unmasked a culture of corruption and criminality, as well as the impunity that underpinned them; he challenged religious intolerance and extremism, and sparked a discussion on modernization. In short, Badawi paved the way for today’s discourse and developments in Saudi Arabia concerning what the Crown Prince himself has called a “moderate Islam” and combating the “cancer of corruption.”
But will these commendable principles and policies have permanence, or were they simply a prelude to the Crown Prince’s Western ties–building tour and PR campaign? The litmus test for legitimacy is the freeing of Raif Badawi — the champion of these changes.
Indeed, releasing Raif would be in the kingdom’s own self-interest.
As the Crown Prince looks to raise foreign direct investment to 5.7% of GDP, he is seeking to “create an environment attractive to… foreign investors, and earn their confidence in the resilience and potential of [the Saudi] national economy.” Building this investor confidence will require increasing trust in Saudi legal norms, including those of constitutions and contracts — a crucial assurance for investors against arbitrary treatment.
Yet the treatment of Raif Badawi is in standing violation of domestic Saudi law and further obligations that Saudi Arabia has assumed under international law. The Court that convicted Badawi lacked jurisdiction. The witnesses in his case were inadmissible. He was denied his right to counsel — his lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abu Al-Khair was himself imprisoned — and he was not informed of the charges against him, nor given the necessary time and means to prepare his defense. His sentence of lashings was itself illegal — as physical torture is prohibited under the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia in 2009, and the U.N.’s Convention Against Torture, which the nation ratified in 1997. The criminalization of Badawi was ultimately the criminalization of the protected rights he sought to exercise and of freedom itself.
In the face of these standing violations of their own sacred laws and treaty agreements, why should investors trust that Saudi Arabia would respect their business commitments? Investors could just as easily be treated with the same arbitrariness. However, it is not too late for Saudi Arabia to make an important statement to the international investor community about rule of law and remedy these standing violations by releasing Badawi and his lawyer.
To release Badawi would also be a stroke of geostrategic genius.
Faced with the regional resurgence of violence emanating from the Iranian Regime — such as the recent firing of rockets at Riyadh by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen — the Saudi Crown Prince has been encouraging the international community to increase economic and political pressure against Iran. Similarly, the Crown Prince spearheaded a regional move to sever ties with Qatar to protect “national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism.” The collective action aimed to pressure Qatar to end its support for terror groups, including elements of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
But when the Saudi ambassador to Canada tried to host a major press conference on Qatar with his Egyptian and Emirati counterparts in July 2017, his message was lost. Journalists asked about Badawi at the Conference — and the ambassadors were forced to abandon their advocacy on Qatar to defend the unjust imprisonment.
Indeed, Raif Badawi may be the most celebrated prisoner of conscience in the world today. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he is a recipient of scores of prestigious human rights awards and honorifics, including the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament, the PEN Pinter Prize and the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Prize. Foreign Policy named him as one of 2015’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, and he received the Courage Award from a coalition of 20 human rights groups from around the world at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. His case and cause have been championed by a broad and inclusive cross-section of leaders from both civil service and civil society.
Rather than distract from Saudi efforts, releasing Badawi would help advance their campaign. Indeed, Badawi would be an articulate ally and spokesperson for shining a spotlight on Iran and Qatar, which are among the most regressive and repressive regimes in the world — and as a human rights activist Badawi has been a forceful critic of each. Living in liberty, Badawi — with his established and influential global network — can play a transformative role in growing a grassroots campaign and cultivating a collective coalition against the state-sanctioning and support of extremism of the Regimes in Iran and Qatar.
With such a critical mass of reasons to release Raif, any claims to the contrary are certainly surmountable.
The slippery slope argument — that the Saudi state would face an emboldened movement to release other prisoners, some of whom may pose a risk to national security — is mitigated by the exceptional nature of Badawi — an international icon, whose views now largely parallel those of the new Saudi leadership. His release would have a positive worldwide resonance, and attest to the genuine authenticity of reforms to this global audience.
Ultimately, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has full authority to grant clemency. When he releases the list of pardons in advance of Ramadan next month, the Crown Prince should take the opportunity to propel his agenda forward — both within Saudi Arabia and across the globe — by freeing Raif Badawi and allowing him to join in Quebec, Canada, his wife Ensaf, and children Najwa, Terad and Miriyam.
*This piece was originally published in Time Magazine.