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Who's commemorating the victims of King Abdullah's regime?

A great reformer and champion of women’s rights has died, apparently. If you didn’t know who world leaders were lining up to express condolences for this weekend, you might think that one of the great civil rights heroes of our time had passed away. David Cameron today travelled to pay tribute to a leader who, in our Prime Minister’s words, will be remembered for his ‘commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths’. IMF chief Christine Lagarde lamented the loss of ‘a strong advocate of women’.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia, is seen by some as a reformer. To his credit he did make nods towards reform. He very cautiously began to restructure the country's judicial system. He eked back some margins for women in political life – allowing women to sit on the Shura Council, an advisory body that counsels the King, for example – and in some aspects of social life, by permitting women to work in limited employment roles.

But scratch the surface of the heralded reforms, and discrimination remains deeply entrenched: women may now be able to vote at this year’s elections, but they will have to be accompanied to polling stations by a male guardian – they (famously) won’t be allowed to drive or cycle there by themselves.

Women remain the property of their male guardians in pretty much every aspect of life. This extends to the King’s own daughters, two of whom claim that their father has kept them against their will under house arrest for the last 14 years. ‘If he does that to his own children, how do you think the rest of the country is?’ said Princess Jawaher to Channel 4 News last year; ‘Gender apartheid, that’s what it is’, her sister Princess Sahar responded.

By calling King Abdullah an advocate of women, Christine Lagarde does a great disservice to the women imprisoned, detained and harassed in Saudi Arabia for simply asserting their rights. Women like Loujain al-Hathloul and Mayssa al-Amoudi, facing terrorism charges for driving a car last month. Or another prisoner of conscience, Souad al-Shammari, detained since November for tweeting her criticism of the male guardian system.

Meanwhile, flags at government buildings in the UK yesterday were lowered in honour of a ruler who oversaw a surge in executions, the creation of an abysmal ‘counter terrorism’ law that effectively legalises repression, the continual wide use of corporal punishment such as flogging, and a relentless and weighty crackdown on free speech.

Which brings us to Raif Badawi – now known around the world as the blogger Saudi Arabia flogged simply for advocating free speech (two days before it sent a delegate to pay respects to the Charlie Hebdo journalists). Raif’s name has crept up the headlines in the last three weeks, and it is cheering to see. Know about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Raif Badawi, and you have a glimpse into the dire reality of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia that leaders are this weekend silently ignoring. 

Raif is currently serving a decade in prison and awaiting 950 of his sentence of 1,000 lashes for running the ‘Saudi Arabian Liberals’ website, a forum he created for discussion and debate. A fortnight ago, he was dealt 50 lashes in a public square in Jeddah. Due to be lashed weekly after Friday prayers, his public torture has been postponed two weeks in a row now on medical grounds. However, this does not lessen Raif’s risk of being flogged once again this Friday, and every Friday after that for 18 weeks. Raif is no criminal, but this remains his future.

We have continued to campaign for Raif’s freedom, and unlike leaders turning a blind eye for the sake of diplomacy, we will continue to press the Saudi Arabian authorities to free Raif.

On Thursday we once again held vigils for Raif’s freedom in London, Edinburgh and Belfast in the UK; Amnesty colleagues internationally mobilised protests outside Saudi Arabian embassies around the globe.

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Post by Amnesty International UK.

At the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London just now. Again. #freeraif #raifbadawi

— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) January 22, 2015

Nearly a million people have now signed our global petition to free Raif: add your name if you haven’t already.

Raif’s name and case are now rightfully well-known – his story is the true story of rights denied in Saudi Arabia, and his plight must not slip from the headlines until he is freed.

Look even slightly beyond Raif – to his lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abu al-Khair, or his Saudi Arabian Liberals colleague Souad al-Shammari, for example – and the picture sharpens; those who dared to peacefully criticise King Abdullah's regime remain behind bars.

Saudi Arabia’s new leader, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, now has an opportunity to turn his country’s human rights record around. There are scores of prisoners of conscience like Raif languishing in Saudi Arabian prisons. Releasing people locked up simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression is a good place to start: that would be a real reform, worthy of accolade.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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