Raif Badawi is a Saudi intellectual and an editor of a liberal website. He faces the death penalty in his home country! His crime is "committing apostasy."
Here is the catch.
Badwai never renounced his religion, Islam. And yes, choosing one's religion is a fundamental human right. But the issue here has very little to do with this right. His is a political case.
His website, created in 2006, was a platform for serious discussions on liberal ideas, religious authorities, and Wahhabi interpretation of Islam in the Kingdom. Nothing that says that he stopped being a Muslim.
Yet he has been imprisoned since June 2012 serving a 7 years sentence for "setting up a website that undermines general security " and "ridiculing Islamic religious figures".
Least the message was not strong enough; a judge recommended last December that the imprisoned blogger go before a high court on a charge of apostasy. This charges carries the death penalty.
Badawi's case is a political one. But as often the case is, every time Saudi authorities decide to silence a vocal critic, they use "religion" and "God" as a pretext to justify their repression. It is a strategy used since the creation of the Kingdom in 1932 to delegitimize any opposition to the rule of the Saudi dynasty.
Badawi never opposed the Saudi dynasty. He was a firm believer of the possibility of reform in the Kingdom and he said that publicly. He was, however, critical of the Wahhabi religious establishment, its medieval control of society, and its religious police that instil fear among Saudi citizens. He also warned of the danger of the extremism produced in Saudi universities, stating, rightly one should add, that Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University had become a "din for terrorists." And He asked simple questions, such as why is Valentine's Day banned in the Kingdom.
At the beginning, Badwais' website was tolerated by the authorities. This toleration ceased however when the popular revolts swept the Arab region in 2011. It is an indication of the nervousness of the political establishment, a nervousness that led the Council of Senior Scholars -- the country's highest religious authority -- to issue a religious Fatwa (edict) in March 2011, banning public protests and demonstrations.
As a reward for the religious establishment`s endorsement of the Saudi dynasty, the government turned to its Riyal Politik, and announced on March 18 2011 a package of $93 billion in hand-outs. Part of the package would be spent on welfare benefits. However, a great chunk will go to the creation of 60,000 security jobs within the interior ministry, and significantly, more money has been promised for the feared religious police.
The King also announced in a speech that the media must respect the Sunni clerics, who oversee the application of Sharia law in the Islamic state -- a sign that Saudi's ruling elite will tolerate no dissent.
Badawi's arrest came at the backdrop of these political developments: A political establishment afraid of its own citizens and dependent on mediaeval religious authorities for survival. His website was exposing the excess and danger of this religious establishment. He and his website had to be silenced. It is as simple as that. He is facing the death penalty for no crime other than expressing an opinion.
Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is campaigning for the freedom of her husband, told me that she is surprised at the "absence of interference of the politician, who supports religious dialogue outside the kingdom, yet oppresses it with the support of the official religious establishment inside the kingdom!"
The Kingdom thinks it can get away with this blatant violation. Human rights activists think otherwise. A group of protestors organized in Rome on January 9, 2014 a sit-in in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia demanding the immediate release of Badawi. Others are planning similar actions in European capitols. Their message is straightforward: free Raif Badawi.