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And the Winner of this Year’s PEN Pinter Award Goes to … the Man Slated for 1,000 Lashes!

Will the award be enough to save Saudi blogger Raif Badawi?

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Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is still waiting for his remaining 950 lashes. The first of his 20 installments of 50 was delivered — publicly and on top of a 10-year prison sentence and an almost $270,000 fine — in January. But in the face of public outcry, including vigils and protests outside Saudi embassies around the world, the remainder of his punishment has been delayed.

On Tuesday, when he was named the co-winner of the 2015 PEN Pinter prize, the writer achieved new recognition that may make it harder for Saudi authorities to make him suffer through the remaining lashes. The prize, named for Nobel Prize winning British playwright Harold Pinter, is awarded annually at the British Library in London, and shared between a British writer who displays “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies,” and an international “writer of courage” chosen by the British winner and then English PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee according to the organization’s website.

Badawi has been jailed since 2012, when he was arrested for his website, Saudi Liberal Network, which challenged government policies, advocated secularism, and warned of the dangers of discrimination. The site also published an article about Valentine's Day, which is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, quietly mocked the country's religious police, and published a writer who insinuated that the al-Imam Mohamed ibn Saud University was a "den for terrorists." Officially, he was arrested on charges of apostasy and insulting Islam.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is still waiting for his remaining 950 lashes. The first of his 20 installments of 50 was delivered — publicly and on top of a 10-year prison sentence and an almost $270,000 fine — in January. But in the face of public outcry, including vigils and protests outside Saudi embassies around the world, the remainder of his punishment has been delayed.

On Tuesday, when he was named the co-winner of the 2015 PEN Pinter prize, the writer achieved new recognition that may make it harder for Saudi authorities to make him suffer through the remaining lashes. The prize, named for Nobel Prize winning British playwright Harold Pinter, is awarded annually at the British Library in London, and shared between a British writer who displays “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies,” and an international “writer of courage” chosen by the British winner and then English PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee according to the organization’s website.

Badawi has been jailed since 2012, when he was arrested for his website, Saudi Liberal Network, which challenged government policies, advocated secularism, and warned of the dangers of discrimination. The site also published an article about Valentine’s Day, which is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, quietly mocked the country’s religious police, and published a writer who insinuated that the al-Imam Mohamed ibn Saud University was a “den for terrorists.” Officially, he was arrested on charges of apostasy and insulting Islam.

British poet and literary critic James Fenton, with whom Badawi is sharing the prize, highlighted the humbleness of the Saudi writer’s project. “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 speech at the British Library in London on Tuesday.

Indeed, the writing for which Badawi has been punished is quiet to the point of being almost anodyne and would have attracted little attention if it hadn’t been written Saudi Arabia. In September of 2010, he argued that secularism “is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world.” He lamented that “Muslims in Saudi Arabia do not only disrespect the beliefs of others, but also charge them with infidelity,” causing him to question, “How can we be such people and build … normal relations with six billion humans, four and a half billion of whom do not believe in Islam.” On Israel, he wrote, “I’m not in support of the Israeli occupation of any Arab country, but at the same time I do not want to replace Israel by a religious state.”

Though Fenton chose to praise Badawi’s courage, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who accepted the award on his behalf, used the bully pulpit to criticize Britain’s soft touch in getting him released. “The Foreign Office has condemned Raif Badawi’s sentence, but said that it would be ‘interfering’ for the government to comment on Saudi’s judicial process,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest trading partner in the region. It is time for the government to show moral leadership, to demonstrate that its support for human rights is more than rhetoric and to use the very considerable influence it has on the regime and win the freedom of Raif Badawi and all other political prisoners of conscience.”

Badawi’s defenders have expressed hope that the added attention will pressure the Saudi government to reconsider his sentence. In a taped statement played at the ceremony, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, said, “The 50 lashes he received have been enough to ignite massive protests that have still not subsided. From Korea to Australia and the farthest reaches of Canada, people of all kinds have cried: ‘I am Raif.’” Whether this latest attention will be enough to break him free, however, is unclear. In June, the Saudi supreme court upheld the sentence.

Somewhat ironically, Badawi, in an August 2010 post, roughly predicted his fate: “As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.”

TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Stackpole is an Assistant Editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tom_stackpole

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