A Saudi blogger jailed and lashed for allegedly insulting Islam on an internet forum he created to encourage public debate is the 2015 winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament said Thursday.
The legislature’s president, Martin Schulz, called for Saudi King Salman to “immediately pardon” Raif Badawi and “release him so that he can accept the prize.”
The 31-year-old Badawi was arrested more than three years ago for criticizing the Saudi religious police and sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam.
The blogger is an “unusually courageous and … exemplary man” who is facing punishment that “objectively can only be described as brutal torture,” Schulz said.
Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haider, hoped the awarding will place pressure on Saudi Arabia to free him.
“I hope this sends a positive signal for Raif’s release,” she said from Canada where she is staying.
“This is a great prize, which Raif deserves because he is brave,” she told dpa.
“I hope it will raise his morale, which was not so good when I talked to him six days ago.”
There was no official Saudi comment.
In June, Saudi Arabia’s top court upheld the sentence against Badawi amid global outrage.
He received the first 50 lashes of his sentence in public in January. The lashes were then suspended – officially on health grounds but also following an international outcry.
The sentence has been condemned by rights groups. The United States has also expressed “great concern” and called on allied Saudi Arabia to review the sentence.
The announcement of his Sakharov Prize was met on Thursday with a standing ovation by EU lawmakers taking part in the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg, France.
“I can think of nobody more deserving [of the Sakharov Prize] than a man imprisoned for encouraging open debate in a country where it is not tolerated,” said Syed Kamall, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists faction in the legislature, which was among the politcal groups that nominated the blogger for the award.
“This prize should send out a strong signal to Saudi Arabia that freedom of speech and thought is a universal right,” Kamall said.
Choosing Badawi as this year’s recipient “underlines the importance attached by the EU in promoting political and social debate and in supporting freedom of expression worldwide,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.
The award, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been handed out by the European Parliament since 1988. The 50,000-euro (54,835-dollar) prize honours individuals who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Previous recipients include former South African president Nelson Mandela and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Last year’s prize went to Congolese physician Denis Mukwege, who works with victims of gang rape.
Badawi will be honoured during an award ceremony at the parliament in Strasbourg on December 16.
The other finalists for this year’s prize had been assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and the democratic opposition in Venezuela.
Nemtsov was chosen Thursday as the recipient of the 2016 Jean Rey International Prize. Its 10,000-euro award will go to a foundation that his daughter has created to support Russian civil society, the liberal faction in the EU parliament said.