Arrested for blogging: The plight of Saudi Arabian journalists

Saudi Arabia never features on the lists of “rogue states” or “pariah states” compiled by western governments.

It has escaped censure despite being an absolute monarchy rated, according to The Economist’s democracy index, as the 159th most authoritarian government (out of 167) in the world.

The Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 press freedom index places Saudi Arabia in 168th place (out of 180 countries) on the grounds that it has no independent media and doesn’t tolerate political parties, unions and human rights groups.

Yet the US and UK governments seek to turn a blind eye to the situation in Saudi. An official veil is usually drawn across unacceptable aspects of its domestic politics which, when they occur in other states, are routinely denounced.

Commercial realpolitik has long determined the Foreign Office’s attitude towards Saudi Arabia, and the current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, shows no sign of bucking the trend.

In his days as a journalist, he was a doughty defender of press freedom in Britain. “It is one of the glories of this country that we have a free, exuberant and sometimes feral media”, he wrote in The Sun in 2012. A year later, this time in the Daily Telegraph, he lambasted the idea of press regulation backed by statute, once again eulogising Britain’s “vigorous, voracious press”.

But Johnson has been noticeably silent about the Saudi regime’s clamp on freedom of expression. In an open letter to him from Reporters Without Borders last December, he was asked to raise the case of one particular victim of Saudi repression: Raif Badawi.

His treatment has been exceptionally harsh. He has been in prison in Riyadh following his arrest on 17 June 2012 on several charges, including "insulting Islam through electronic channels" and the very serious crime of apostasy, which carries an automatic death sentence. It is defined as “a conscious abandonment of Islam by a Muslim” or the questioning the religion’s tenets.

Badawi’s offences stemmed from having co-founded an online discussion forum known as the Liberal Saudi Network. He has, in effect, been arrested for blogging.

He was eventually convicted, in May 2014, of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison, plus 1,000 lashes and a 10-year ban on travelling abroad after the completion of his jail term.

The flogging sentence was decried across the world by human rights groups and some governments. When the first 50 lashes were administered in January 2015, even Britain’s Foreign Office felt is necessary to issue a statement saying: “The UK condemns the use of cruel and degrading punishment in all circumstances”.

Those were, of course, the right sentiments. But Saudi Arabia can soak up any amount of criticism because it was assured that little more would be said and nothing would be done. No trade sanctions. No United Nations security council resolution. No restriction on visits from the British royal family.

When I inquired whether Johnson had raised Badawi’s case during his December visit to Saudi Arabia, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “Ministers and the British Embassy in Riyadh frequently discuss human rights and raise concerns with the Saudi Arabian government, including the case of Raif Badawi. We believe we will be more successful in affecting change by discussing cases privately”.

But did he specifically speak about Badawi, a man locked up for five years who could yet face 950 lashes in the course of the next five years of his sentence? All I learned is that Johnson raised a number of human rights issues.

This is little comfort to Badawi or to his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children. She is living now in exile in Canada and arrived in London for a short stay this week. She told me (via a Skype interview, through a translator) that her husband’s case is stagnating. Nothing is happening, she said.

One of her major concerns is about the state of his health. She said: “He has pain in a kidney for which he has received no treatment”. She also reported that his morale is low, saying: “Raif is morally weakened”.

Ensaf would like the British government, once the next one is elected, to call for Badawi’s release on the grounds that in four weeks’ time, he will have served half his sentence. Her earnest hope is that the Saudi Arabian authorities might grant him a pardon during Ramadan (which begins on 26 May).

Although she is eager to raise awareness about her husband’s plight, and hopes international pressure might help him, she was punctilious in refusing to criticise the Saudi Arabian government. Indeed, she believes there are indications of reforms in her native country. “I think there is a potential for change,” she said, “with signs of greater freedom of expression”.

Her own morale has been lifted by the support she has received in Quebec. She said: “The Quebecois people have been sympathetic and shown great solidarity”.

They have welcomed her and the children: two daughters – 13-year-old Najwa and nine-year-old Miriam – and a son, 12-year-old Terad (known as Doody). They have all mastered French. “They really miss their father and need him,” said Ensaf. “And they are tired of waiting”.

It is sobering to reflect on the fact that Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu Al Khair, is also undergoing a 15-year prison sentence, imposed in 2014. Nor is Badawi the only journalist in jail in Saudi Arabia. 

At least nine other journalists and citizen journalists are currently under detention. One is Alaa Brinji who was arrested in May 2014 and then sentenced to five years’ jail in March 2016 by the Saudi counter-terrorism court after posting tweets in support of women’s right to drive cars and jailed human rights activists.

And in March last year, the Saudi writer Mohanna Abdulaziz al-Hubail was sentenced in his absence to six years in prison for "insulting the state and its rulers" and taking part in demonstrations calling for the release of prisoners of conscience.

Where, I can’t help but wonder, is the British government’s conscience?

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*