On Monday, 22 May 2017, Representative James McGovern (D-MA) delivered a statement in Congress on the continued detention of Raif Badawi and all prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi court sentenced human rights activist and writer Badawi to a total of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for free speech-related charges. 17 June 2017 will mark Badawi’s fifth year in prison, and authorities have so far subjected him to 50 lashings. “Try to imagine what that means, what it would feel like to have someone whip you 50 times in a row, what it would do to your body, and how it would cut you up and make you bleed,” said Rep. McGovern.
Rep. McGovern in his speech notes that Badawi’s case is not unique. A number of other human rights defenders, civil society activists, and journalists are also currently serving prison sentences in Saudi Arabia. Prominent human rights defender and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) have been wrongfully tried, convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment (see ADHRB’s report on ACPRA here). And Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has documented 10 journalists detained in Saudi Arabia for doing their job.
During the president’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia just days ago, Rep. McGovern noted that the Administration did not “[say] a single word in public about human rights” and did not “[speak] up even once on behalf of all people who are wasting away in jails” for exercising their human rights. Members of the US delegation even seemed to show a fundamental misunderstanding of the state of civil society repression in Saudi Arabia. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross noted that “there was not a single hint of a protester… with a bad placard” in Saudi Arabia during their trip. His comment was quickly criticized by a number of analysts. “Wilbur Ross touts the lack of protests in Saudi Arabia during Trump’s visit. Maybe it’s because protesters are jailed and sometimes beheaded?” wrote one researcher on Twitter.
Rep. McGovern called for the immediate and unconditional release of Raif Badawi and all prisoners of conscience imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. “The United States must not be silent while people sit in prison for exercising their most basic human rights.”
To read the full speech, please click here or see the full text below.
FREE RAIF BADAWI AND ALL PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE IN SAUDI ARABIA
The SPEAKER pro tempore: The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. McGovern) for 5 minutes.
Mr. McGOVERN: Mr. Speaker, June 17 will mark the fifth anniversary of the arrest of Raif Badawi, a uman activist and writer who created the website “Free Saudi Liberals.” He is a prisoner of conscience sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison, and a 10-year travel ban for exercising his fundamental right to freedom of expression.
He was convicted of violating Saudi Arabia’s draconian information technology law and “insulting Islam.”
Since his imprisonment in 2012, Raif’s case has garnered international attention and outrage. For the courage he displayed as a free-speech advocate, he has won many awards, including the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Prize in 2014, the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Prize, and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2015.
His writings were a breath of fresh air in a country that ranks 168 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
In January 2015, Raif received the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes ordered by the so-called court that sentenced him. Try to imagine what that means, what it would feel like to have someone whip you 50 times in a row, what it would do to your body, and how it would cut you up and make you bleed. The lashing was carried out in public in front of a mosque as men stood around and cheered. It was barbaric.
A week after the first session of flogging, a doctor advised prison authorities that Raif’s wounds had not healed enough for him to undergo the second round of this brutal punishing. To date, the lashings have not continued, but they could resume at any time.
Last year, Raif had to resort to a hunger strike to get access to healthcare. It has been 5 years since he has seen his wife, Ensaf, and his three children. They are growing up, and he is missing it because he dared to write what he thought.
I am sorry to say that Raif is not an isolated case. Reporters Without Borders has identified another 10 journalists and citizen journalists detained in Saudi Arabia.
Waleed Abu al-Khair, a prominent human rights defender and Raif’s lawyer, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “harming the reputation of the state by communicating with international organizations” and other supposed crimes, like “insulting the judiciary and questioning the integrity of judges” and “disobeying the ruler and seeking to remove his legitimacy.”
Many other human rights defenders are in prison for doing things like setting up human rights organizations without permission and calling for protests. All of the founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association have been wrongfully put on trial or imprisoned.
Mr. Speaker, I understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States, but we also know that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is terrible. According to our own State Department, “The most important human rights problems include citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government, restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, association, movement, and religion, and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affect most aspects of women’s lives.”
That is not exactly a short list, Mr. Speaker. Yet the President of the United States just traveled to Saudi Arabia without saying a single word in public about human rights, without speaking up even once on behalf of all the people who are wasting away in jails because they chose to defend a client, advocate for minorities, or call for reform.
The President wants to buy cooperation in the fight against extremism with a $110 billion arms deal, but Saudi Arabia will not achieve security or stability by repressing peaceful dissent. On the contrary, repression creates the conditions for extremism.
Haven’t we learned that lesson by now?
Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, understands what the President does not. We in the United States have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. Our values are our great strength and greatest treasure. We have been the country that saw the world as it was and made it better.
Mr. Speaker, I am here today in the best tradition of the United States to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Raif Badawi, who must be allowed to be reunited with his wife and children in Canada. And I call also for all of the other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia to be released.
The United States must not be silent while people sit in prison for exercising their most basic human rights.