A Saudi blogger who was jailed, fined, and publicly flogged after being convicted of charges including “violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought” has been named co-winner of the 2015 PEN Pinter prize. Raif Badawi will share the prize with the British poet and literary critic James Fenton, who highlighted Badawi’s courage in a speech at the British Library in
London. Fenton said: What moved me was the contrast between the simplicity of Badawi’s liberal aims – their modesty, almost – and the ferocity of the punishments they have brought down on him. “Imprisonment, astonishing fines, corporal punishment designed to break either the spirit or the body first and to act as a chill warning to others. It is a world of inconceivable cruelty but intimately linked to ours by business, strategic interests, military, and diplomatic ties. For our part, then, protest has a purpose, and – who knows? – perhaps even a chance of some sort of success.
Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, accepted the award in London on behalf of the Badawi family. In his speech, he particularly criticized the British government for its close links to the Saudi regime. He said: “The Foreign Office has condemned Raif Badawi’s sentence but said it would be ‘interfering’ for the government to comment on Saudi’s judicial process. Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has even said that ‘the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population’.
One wonders how she knows when the price for expressing what you think in Saudi Arabia is so very high, as Raif Badawi is aware. Wales added: “Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest trading partner in the region. It is time for the government to show moral leadership, demonstrate that its support for human rights is more than rhetoric, and use the considerable influence it has on the regime and wins the freedom of Raif Badawi and all other political prisoners of conscience.
Badawi’s plight results from him setting up a website in 2012 called Saudi Liberal Network, which challenged the government. In May 2014, Badawi was fined 1m riyals (£175,000), jailed for 10 years, and sentenced to 1,000 lashes to be given 50 at a time. An anthology of his writings, 1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, was published in the UK last month by Greystone Books, with all proceeds donated to efforts to get Badawi released.
In a filmed statement, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Quebec, thanked English PEN for the award. “Raif is just a peace-loving intellectual who was not content to be part of the flock or to follow men of religion who are out of touch with the real world and who rule through laws that are unjust and despotic. He was brave enough to speak out and say no to their brutality and oppression, and their only response was to punish his frail body with the whips of their ignorance,” she said.
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“The 50 lashes he received have been enough to ignite massive protests that have still not subsided. From Korea to Australia and the farthest reaches of Canada, people of all kinds have cried: ‘I am Raif.’”
Fenton was named winner of this year’s prize in June. It was his job then to choose an international writer of courage from a shortlist supplied by PEN. He chose Badawi, who became co-winner of the PEN Pinter.
The prize was established in 2009 in memory of the playwright Harold Pinter and is, in the first instance, awarded to a British or UK-based writer who, in the words of Pinter’s Nobel prize speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world, and shows a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”.