Date: March 11, 2022
Washington, D.C. – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today expressed relief at the release of Saudi prisoner of conscience Raif Badawi at the conclusion of his 10 year sentence. Badawi was arrested in 2012 over the peaceful expression of his religious beliefs.
“We are thrilled by the news of Raif Badawi’s release after 10 long and unjust years in prison, and call on Saudi Arabia to cease its persecution of those who exercise freedom of religion or belief.” said USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza, who advocated for Badawi as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Program. “We remain deeply concerned for the wellbeing of his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and hope that Saudi Arabia will also allow him to be reunited with his family soon.”
Badawi faced harassment and questioning following the creation of his Free Saudi Liberals blog, beginning with charges of insulting Islam in 2008, continuing through a 2009 travel ban and asset freeze, and culminating in his June 2012 arrest and December 2012 trial. The Saudi courts originally also recommended charging Badawi with apostasy but later dropped the charge. A court sentenced Badawi in May 2014 to 10 years in prison on trumped up charges, including insulting Islam, 1,000 lashes, a one million riyal ($266,000) fine, and a 10-year travel and media ban following his release. In 2015, Badawi endured 50 lashes in front of a mosque in Jeddah, but endured no further lashings following an international outcry. In prison, officials denied Badawi access to his books and crucial medicine. Badawi and his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair conducted a four-day hunger strike in September 2019 over this mistreatment.
“Raif Badawi’s imprisonment has long been an obstacle to genuine progress on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,” said USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava. “We hope that his release marks a turning point in Saudi Arabia’s long history of religious persecution. Those like Raif Badawi, who peacefully expressed religious dissent, must be allowed to do so without hindrance.”
In its 2021 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department designate Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). While the State Department made this designation on January 13, 2021, it issued a waiver exempting Saudi Arabia from sanctions to which it would otherwise be subject under IRFA.