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Today, Thursday 9 January, VUB rector Caroline Pauwels is being locked in an isolation cell in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Brussels. In doing so, she is supporting the action of Amnesty International as it calls for the release of blogger Raif Badawi and his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, from a Saudi prison.
Communication scientist Pauwels has been an ambassador of the right to freedom of speech and press freedom for years. She organised the first Difference Day in 2015, an event dedicated to these fundamental freedoms through lectures, film screenings, debates and exhibitions. It has since taken place each year on 3 May, the United Nations’ International Press Freedom Day; this year’s event will be the sixth edition.
Badawi first laureate of VUB/ULB Prize
During Difference Day, VUB presents the Honorary Title for Freedom of Expression with ULB. This recognition goes to people or institutions that structurally propagate and promote freedom of expression. In 2015, Raif Badawi was the first laureate, but he could not receive the prize himself as he has been in prison since 2012.
Badawi is the founder of Saudi Arabian Liberals, an online forum that promotes freedom of speech and questions a number of basic political and social principles of Saudi Arabian society. He was arrested in 2012 for insulting Islam through electronic channels and religious apostasy. In 2014 he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes. The conviction was met with great protest worldwide, including petitions, letters, social media campaigns, street protests and demonstrations. He had the support of journalists, Amnesty International, other human rights organisations and politicians, and 18 Nobel Prize laureates put their names to an open letter denouncing his conviction.
Solitary confinement and hunger strike
Last month, Amnesty International learned that both Badawi and his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, had been placed in solitary confinement and under strict surveillance. This increases the risk of torture or other ill treatment, which are common in the Saudi legal system. Badawi and Abu al-Khair went on hunger strike in protest.
On Thursday 9 January it will be exactly five years since Badawi received the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes. For the time being he has not received the remaining lashes, which he is thought to be unlikely to survive.
‘Right side of history’
Amnesty International denounces the detention and inhumane treatment of both Badawi and Abu al-Khair and has therefore placed two cages on the central reservation in front of the Saudi embassy in Brussels.
VUB rector Caroline Pauwels is one of the well-known faces who is taking turns being locked up in these improvised isolation cells to generate awareness of the treatment of Badawi and Abu al-Khair and to fight for the right to free speech and press freedom.
“Raif Badawi and his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, are on the right side of history,” Pauwels said. “They are fighting for the same values and freedoms that are essential to us, with freedom of the press and freedom of expression at the forefront. In 2015 Raif Badawi was the first laureate of the Honorary Title for Freedom of Expression, awarded by VUB and ULB during Difference Day. We must continue to support him.”
Two cages in front of the Saudi embassy symbolize the solitary confinement of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abu al-Khair. Belgian writers, academics and politicians are locked up.
Rooseveltlaan 45, Brussel
January 9th, 2020
- 9u-10u: Writer Joke van Leeuwen
- 10u-11u: Writer Lize Spit
- 11u-12u: Wies De Graeve, directeur Amnesty International Vlaanderen, en Philippe Hensmans, director Amnesty International Belgique francophone.
- 12u-13u: VUB rector Caroline Pauwels
- 13u-14u: Politician Mark Demesmaeker (NV-A)
- 14u-14u30: Politician Wouter De Vriendt (Groen!)
- 14u30-18u: Amnesty-activists