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Why Aren't UK Ministers Manning the Free Speech Barricades for Raif Badawi?

19/01/2015 13:00 GMT | Updated 21/03/2015 09:59 GMT

After the horror of the Charlie Hebdo attack, world leaders have queued up to condemn the atrocity and voice their support for liberty and free speech. Prime Minister David Cameron was as forthright as any, quickly calling the attack in Paris "sickening", and assuring the world that he "stands with the French people in the fight against terror" and in "defending the freedom of the press".

Mr Cameron didn't leave it there of course. He was also in attendance at the huge Je Suis Charlie solidarity rally in Paris, manning the free speech barricades with Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and numerous other leaders (some rather shamelessly so given their poor records in guaranteeing the right to free speech back home).

A doughty defender of free expression in Paris, the UK government's stance seems less firm when it comes to more "challenging" cases. For instance, with the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi - facing 1,000 lashes and ten years in jail for criticising the Saudi authorities and poking fun at religion on his website - the UK government has all but lost the power of plain speaking. True, asked about the case at PMQs the prime minister said the government "condemned" the use of corporal punishment, but any actual outrage was dialled down to almost zero. Likewise, the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood responded to a question on Badawi with the standard condemnation of corporal punishment and a policy statement about how the UK "is a strong supporter of freedom of expression around the world". As regards the Saudis' flagrant breach of the right to free speech, Mr Ellwood assured his questioner that the UK maintains "a close dialogue with the Saudi Arabian government on these issues and will continue to do so".

So take that Riyadh: we're going to continue having a close dialogue with you. Messrs Cameron and Ellwood have only spoken on Badawi's plight when asked. There have been no big ministerial statements, no press releases, no primetime media interviews, and no carpeting for the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UK, Mohammed bin Nawwaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Once again, it seems that ministers are content to wear the Saudi muzzle.

Let's remember that Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old father of three young children, was flogged 50 times with a cane in a public square in Jeddah just two days after the Hebdo outrage. On the following Friday Badawi was spared a second batch of lashes because a doctor said his wounds from the first round hadn't healed enough (the Saudi authorities are humane about their cruelty).

As the UK government knows full well (not least because Amnesty International regularly tells it so), Saudi Arabia's human rights record is a roll-call of shame. Endemic torture in places of detention, grossly unfair trials, systematic discrimination against women (including the notorious ban on women driving cars), regular use of the death penalty including public executions (a Burmese woman was dragged screaming into a car park last week and beheaded with three strokes of a sword). Quite what the "close dialogue" has ever achieved in terms of human rights reform is open to doubt, but the Anglo-Saudi relationship unquestionably includes a mammoth - and highly secretive - arms deal and a "strategic partnership" over regional security. Meanwhile, when a Scottish man called Ron Jones tried to sue the Saudi authorities for alleged torture suffered by him and four other British men in the Kingdom he says he got scant support from the UK. The authorities here, he complained, were "more interested in maintaining good trade relations with Saudi Arabia" than in justice.

Against this backdrop one could almost descend into cynicism. When Amnesty tried to deliver a petition of thousands of names opposing Badawi's sentence to the Saudi embassy in Mayfair last week, the door wasn't answered. A heavily-armed British police officer, a jolly chap despite the Heckler & Koch machine-gun on his shoulder, asked how we'd fared and chuckled when we told him. The laughing policeman has presumably seen it all before.

The embassy can be hard to locate in the well-appointed streets of Mayfair - I myself took a wrong turn last week. As the London cabbies know though, the key landmark is the big Curzon cinema right opposite - extremely handy for the Saudi ambassador if he's in need of distraction. I wonder if the ambassador will be catching the Curzon's forthcoming screening of Andrea Chénier, the opera based on the French poet executed during the French Revolution? Chénier, the same age as Badawi when he was guillotined, was executed on Robespierre's orders for his satirical, political poetry - verses considered "crimes against the state". Chénier's writings were the 18th-century equivalent of Charlie Hebdo's satire or Badawi's online ruminations. His death, one of many dreadful events during la Terreur, is a reminder that repressive states (and armed fanatics) are always seeking to crush independent voices, especially satirical ones. Repression, imprisonment, beheadings - it will be familiar territory for Mr Abdulaziz Al Saud.

For that matter, given the double standards on display last week, a quick reminder of free speech principles wouldn't go amiss with British ministers either. Seeing Chénier's story might refresh their memories over what manning the free speech barricades is all about.