More than sixty members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to the king of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience imprisoned for exercising their basic right to freedom -- including blogger Raif Badawi and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair.
The letter encouraged Saudi Arabia's new King Salman bin Abdulaziz to "serve as an advocate for human rights and democratic reforms" and listed myriad ways the king can "build on the steps" taken by the late King Abdullah, including ending the ban on women driving and allowing religious minorities to exercise freely. All of these are among the "key objectives of U.S foreign policy," the Congress members wrote.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 20 sessions of public flogging for "insulting Islam" on his website Free Saudi Liberals. His lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, was sentenced to 15 years and issued a 15-year travel ban for, among other charges, "inciting public opinion."
"Canceling the sentences against Mr. Raif Badawi and Mr. Waleed Abu al-Khair, and releasing immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience punished solely for exercising their basic right to freedom of expression, would be important steps that would communicate your commitments to an expectant international audience," the letter said.
President Obama insists his administration has applied "steady and consistent pressure" on Saudi Arabia to improve human rights in the country. However, the America's ally remains notorious for its human rights record. In its annual world report, the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch noted that the country had stepped up its crackdown against peaceful dissidents in 2013 and continued to restrict the rights of women and foreign workers.
"As in past years, authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. In 2013, courts convicted seven human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms," HRW detailed.
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