Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for “insulting Islam,” was named on Tuesday as the International Writer of Courage and PEN Pinter Prize co-recipient for 2015.
Badawi was selected from a shortlist by British poet, journalist and critic James Fenton, who in June was chosen as the 2015 PEN Pinter Prize winner.
By tradition, the winner of the PEN Pinter Prize, named in memory the late playwright Harold Pinter, shares it with “an international writer of courage.”
“What moved me was the contrast between the simplicity of Badawi’s liberal aims — their modesty, almost — and the ferocity of the punishments they have brought down on him,” Fenton said in a statement issued as the prize was announced at the British Library in London.
“[Saudi Arabia ] is a world of inconceivable cruelty, but intimately linked to ours by business, strategic interests, military and diplomatic ties,” he said.
The award was accepted on Badawi's behalf by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who in a statement said: “I hope that this award … will help bring freedom for Raif Badawi.”
Badawi received the first of his 50 lashes in January, prompting strong criticism in Western countries of the kingdom's human rights record, including its restrictive laws on political and religious expression and the status of Saudi women.
Riyadh responded in March with a statement expressing “surprise and dismay at what is being reported by some media about the case of Raif Badawi and his sentence.”
The statement said Saudi courts were independent and that the kingdom's constitution ensured the protection of human rights because it was based on Islam's Sharia law.
A Jeddah court handed Badawi his sentence after he criticized the Saudi clergy in a blog and called for changes in the way religion is practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, which follows the strict Wahhabi form of Islam, does not permit the public worship of other faiths or allow them to maintain places of worship inside the country. In a new law last year, it included atheism as a terrorist offense.
Local media in the Gulf kingdom has recently warned that people could face execution for “spreading rumors” on social media.
UK-based rights group Reprieve issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing the government's hard-line stance as the execution of Ali al-Nimr, who is to be put to death by crucifixion, approaches.
“The Kingdom is executing people at double the rate of last year, with many of those facing the swordsman’s blade sentenced to death for drug offenses, attending protests or exercising their right to free speech,” said Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve in the statement.
“It is unthinkable that people could face a death sentence for a simple tweet, yet so far, neither the UK nor the US — both key allies of Saudi Arabia — have taken a strong line against this appalling behavior.”
The rights group is also calling attention to the case of another Saudi activist, Dawoud al-Marhoon. Like al-Nimr, al-Marhoon was 17 years old at the time of his arrest and has been sentenced to death by beheading.
Al Jazeera and news agencies