Update: 30.01.2015

Switzerland campaigns for a Saudi human rights defender

Raif Badawi is a blogger and human rights defender from Saudi Arabia. Last year he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (more than CHF 270,000), because he had written critical blogs regarding religion and the Saudi regime on an online portal he had founded.

The corporal punishment is to be executed in 20 weekly sets of 50 lashes. On 9 January 2015 Badawi received the first 50 lashes in Jeddah despite widespread international protest. Amnesty International had previously launched a campaign to exert pressure on the Saudi authorities via social media. Switzerland, too, has stood up for the blogger in an exceptional way.

With their actions the Saudi authorities challenge international human rights protection on various levels: on the one hand the Badawi case revolves around respect for freedom of expression, on the other hand around compliance to the UN Convention against Torture as well as around the protection of human rights defenders.

International protests

The fate of the Saudi blogger has caused a storm of indignation. On 8 January 2015 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein asked the Saudi king to pardon the blogger and at the same time underlined that international law bans flogging. The EU considers the punishment as «unacceptable» and the USA called for this «inhumane punishment» to be stopped. France, a country that has close economic ties with Saudi Arabia, was far less direct in its statements.

Important Swiss reaction

Compared to other states Switzerland has reacted decisively, which is a welcome phenomenon. In a media release by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) of 15 January 2015, Switzerland «strongly condemns the application of corporal punishment which contravenes Saudi Arabia's international obligations». In addition, the statement explicitly calls for the Saudi authorities to rescind the court’s decision, to uphold its international responsibilities in connection with the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and to reconsider the Badawi case.

The resolute wording of the FDFA media release is especially important because many other states still do not dare to publicly criticise Saudi Arabia regarding the ban on torture. The UN Convention against Torture bans the use of corporal punishment. Nevertheless Saudi law includes several of these punishments and public punishment is a widespread practice in Saudi Arabia.

Coherent policy for the protection of human rights defenders

With its approach, Switzerland is setting a sign for a more coherent approach on the issue of human rights defenders. The Confederation has become particularly active on an international level in this field, even more so during the country's presidency of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) in 2014. At the same time Switzerland was repeatedly criticised for remaining completely invisible especially in states where the human rights situation is notoriously difficult. The FDFA’s reaction shows that the Swiss Confederation is willing to become active on this issue.

At the moment, the punishment for the young Saudi has not been rescinded, only postponed. The second series of 50 lashes which was planned for 16 January 2015 was delayed due to the poor health of the blogger. But they are to be resumed on the coming 18 Fridays. In order to avoid this Amnesty International has prolonged its campaign in his support.

Sources

Further information

  • Open letter to the Saudi Crown Prince
    Open letter on the treatment of Raif Badawi to the Saudi Crown Prince from Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, and Werner Faymann, Austrian Federal Chancellor, published by Unser-Recht.ch

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