A Saudi Arabian blogger, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, was awarded the European Union's top human rights prize Thursday in a gesture of support for freedom of expression in the conservative kingdom.
The harsh penalties imposed on Raif Badawi for starting a website carrying content critical of the Saudi religious establishment sparked outrage in the West, where human rights groups have campaigned for his release.
"In the case of Mr. Badawi, fundamental rights are not only not being respected, they are being trodden underfoot," European Parliament President Martin Schulz said when he announced the awarding of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in Strasbourg, France.
He urged the Saudi monarch, King Salman, to free Badawi so that he might travel to Europe in December to collect his prize. "The same should apply to all individuals condemned for having expressed freely their opinions in Saudi Arabia and beyond," Schulz added in a statement.
Badawi's case has put a spotlight on the strict limits to free expression and dissent imposed by the Saudi monarchy, which enforces an ultra-conservative form Islam.
In January, Badawi was taken in handcuffs and shackles to a square outside a mosque in Jidda, where a first round of 50 lashes were administered with a large cane, according to the London-based rights group Amnesty International.
The next round was postponed on the recommendation of doctors, who said Badawi had not yet recovered from the first.
However, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, said this week that she had been informed by a Saudi contact that the flogging would soon resume. In addition to the lashes and imprisonment, Badawi was ordered to pay a stiff fine.
Haidar, who lives in Canada with the couple's three children, issued a statement Thursday saying that her husband "would be very happy to see the extent to which his fight is shared by so many people in the world."
"This prize is further evidence of that," she said.
Saudi authorities did not immediately comment on the prize. However, the country's Foreign Ministry has rejected the foreign criticism of Badawi's sentence along with any interference in the kingdom's "internal affairs."
Badawi was one of three nominees for this year's prize, including the Venezuelan opposition movement Mesa de la Unidad Democratica and Russia's slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
The prize, which is named after the Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, honors groups and individuals who champion human rights and fundamental freedoms. Previous recipients include the late South African President Nelson Mandela and teenage Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.