Just over six weeks after he was subjected to his first public flogging, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi today received an international human rights award.
Badawi is the 2015 recipient of the Geneva Summit's "Courage Award" — sponsored by a coalition of 20 human rights NGOs from around the world.
The 31-year-old blogger and free speech activist was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a total of 1,000 lashes for insulting religious authorities and a range of other related offenses. The charges were filed after he set up the "Saudi Liberal Network," a website that hoped to provide a forum for public debate. It has since been taken down.
Despite an international outcry, Badawi was subjected to his first round of 50 lashes on January 9. The public flogging followed Friday prayers at the al-Jafali mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.
While the process was initially expected to be repeated every Friday for 20 weeks, Badawi hasn't been subjected to the punishment since, though it is uncertain when his flogging might resume.
Badawi's lawyer Waleed Abul-Khair also remains in prison, sentenced to 15 years for "undermining the regime and officials," "inciting public opinion," and "insulting the judiciary."
Dr. Elham Manea, a spokesperson for Badawi, told VICE News that Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, is "delighted" at the news of the award, and that his children "are thrilled that their father is being recognized and also honored with such a prize from such a human rights summit. It means a lot."
Manea talked to VICE News while on the train to Geneva, where she accepted the award on Badawi's behalf. Haidar is currently in Canada, where she emigrated with the couple's children. Manea added, however, that the family understandably remains very concerned about Badawi's health and safety.
"The first two weeks they postponed the flogging based on medical reasons," Manea said, but "after that there was no information. At the same time his case is pending at the criminal court. We're hoping that this will continue and culminate with his eventual freedom."
Dr. Elham Manea receives the award in Geneva on behalf of Raif Badawi. Screengrab via www.genevasummit.org
Manea said that they had been shocked at the level of attention given to the blogger's treatment. "It actually made him an international celebrity," she said, adding that it was important to note that his situation is not unique.
"It's interesting to see that within Saudi Arabia and within the region Badawi stands for many young men and women who share his opinion in terms of the necessity of freedom of expression and freedom of religion. From that perspective, the more we talk about it the more it becomes clear. The situation in Saudi Arabia is not sustainable."
However, the level of publicity given to Badawi's case may not be given to other. Just this week, Manea said that another young man was sentenced to death for the crime of apostasy, though the authorities haven't released his name. "I hope the international outcry will lead to the suspension of this sentence against this young man," she added.
In the meantime, Manea told VICE News that Badawi's award could be seen "as a symbol for many wrong things taking place within Saudi Arabia."
During her acceptance speech to the Geneva Summit on Tuesday afternoon, Manea thanked the assembled human rights activists, and said the prize was truly a symbol that we stand "united in our humanity." She continued: "Why does the Saudi government deny freedoms of speech, religion, and political association to it citizens? As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, why does Saudi Arabia imprison a young man who committed no crime, who only created a blog calling for freedom? Why does it flog a young man with 50 lashes for expressing and opinion? And as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, why does the Saudi government impose a system of gender apartheid on its female citizens?"
In a subtitled video message, Haidar told the summit that she was "astounded" by the honor of the award. "This prize bears a clear message to the Saudi regime, namely that the continued incarceration of Raif is a shame on it," she said.
Blind Chinese dissident and lawyer Chen Guangcheng was the recipient of last year's "Courage" prize.
Meanwhile, the 2015 summit's "Women's Rights Award" was given to Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, the creator of a Facebook page titled "My Stealthy Freedom," which shows pictures of Iranian women without hijabs. The page now has nearly 770,000 Facebook likes.
Addressing summit attendees before the awards ceremony, Alinejad said she was forced to wear a headscarf from the time she started going to school, aged seven. She explained that, to her, a headscarf is not just a small issue and it is not "just a piece of cloth," but a way of quietening her voice and the voices of other Iranian women.
"Every time when I was running or walking in a free country and feeling the wind through my hair it just reminds me that for 35 years I didn't have this freedom," the journalist told the assembled activists, adding that her "hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government."
During her acceptance speech, Alinejad said that she had ruminated carefully about whether to travel to Switzerland to accept the prize. "For Iranian journalists or for Iranian civil rights activists it is normal to be scared," she said, adding that being Iranian and talking about human rights "comes with accusations." However, Alinejad said that she had eventually come to a simple realization: "Whether you speak out or not they're going to label you."
She added that the rules surrounding headscarves are not just demeaning for the female population of Iran. "It is an insult to men that they cannot control themselves," Alinejad said. "Iran is beautiful," but, "over 35 years you never see the real face of Iranian women."
Other attendees at the seventh such annual summit include Hong Kong student protest leaders Alex Chow and Lester Shum, North Korean defectors Yeon-Mi Park and Il Lim, Cuban dissident leader Javier El-Hage, and Saa, a Nigerian schoolgirl who escaped from Boko Haram.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd