Jul 1, 2022

This op-ed was originally published by Newsweek on July 1, 2022.

By USCIRF Commissioner Frank R. Wolf and Rep. Jim McGovern

On March 11, 2022, Saudi Arabia freed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi following a 10-year prison sentence for peacefully expressing his beliefs. We come from different political parties but are united in our advocacy for Badawi through the prisoner of conscience projects of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. While he no longer is languishing in Dhahban Central Prison, our advocacy will not be finished until Badawi joins his wife Ensaf and three children, Terad, Miriyam, and Najwa, in Canada where they found sanctuary in 2013. A Saudi 10-year travel ban stands in his way. During his trip this month to Saudi Arabia, President Joe Biden should ask Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to lift this ban immediately.

Before his detention, Badawi ran a website, Free Saudi Liberals, that hosted debates on political and religious issues in Saudi Arabia and published content supporting secularism and criticizing the Saudi government's religious authorities and their interpretation of Islam. The government responded by charging him in 2008 with insulting Islam, and in 2009 froze his assets and issued a travel ban. Three years later, in June 2012, he was arrested and put on trial that December. The Saudi courts originally recommended charging him with apostasy—punishable by death—but later dropped that charge. Badawi was convicted in May 2014 on spurious charges, including insulting Islam, and sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence, 1,000 lashes, a fine of more than $250,000, a 10-year media ban, and a 10-year travel ban to be imposed following his release.

While in prison, Badawi was put in solitary confinement and denied contact with his family. In January 2015, he received 50 lashes outside a Jeddah mosque. Thankfully, the international outcry was such that he received no additional lashings, and in 2020, the Saudi government banned flogging as a punishment. Badawi conducted a four-day hunger strike in September 2019 after being denied access to his books and medicine. Saudi prison officials have also subjected Badawi's lawyer, Waleed abu al-Khair, to solitary confinement and mistreatment in prison. Al-Khair is serving a 15-year sentence for creating the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association without a permit, inciting public opinion against the state, and for representing Badawi. We urge the Saudi government to release al-Khair as well.

The continued restrictions on Raif Badawi and Waleed abu al-Khair seriously undercut the Saudi government's narrative of transformative change under the auspices of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030. Recently, prominent Saudis have expressed frustration over the Biden administration's attention to human rights issues, expressing concern about a decline in the U.S.-Saudi relationship at a time when regional threats from Iran are significant. In the United States, some pundits have suggested that centering human rights in U.S. foreign policy is unrealistic in the wake of global oil market instability.

Genuine partnership with the United States, however, must be rooted in a common respect for human rights, including the protection of freedom of religion or belief enshrined in international law. Meaningful social progress in Saudi Arabia will not happen overnight given the continued and severe limitations on religious freedom. Non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia cannot conduct public worship. Shiite Muslims face regular discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military. Male guardianship laws justified on religious grounds position women as legal minors for life. Against this background, allowing Badawi to join his family in Canada would send a powerful signal that the Saudi government is committed to progress and ongoing reforms.

Badawi's son Terad recently created a social media hashtag, #LiftRaifTravelBan, so his dad "can taste freedom and see his children again." We call on the Saudi government to make this a reality.