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Je Suis Raif Badawi
Nobel Laureates have urged Saudi academics to suport Raif Badawigalabgal via Flickr

Why 18 Nobel Laureates are standing with Raif Badawi

The Saudi blogger has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes by the government

Last May, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to a thousand lashes, ten years in jail and ordered to pay a £175,000 fine. His only crime? Criticising the country's clerics and defending freedom of speech on his now defunct blog Saudi Arabian Liberals. On Friday, his scheduled 50 lashes was postponed because a doctor had declared him unwell – he was still suffering from the first 50 lashes he received last week.

Now 18 Nobel Laureates are demanding that Saudi Arabia's top academics speak out against Badawi's treatment. In a letter published by the Independent, the world-famous Laureates, including novelist J M Coetzee, urging top Saudi academics to "be heard arguing for the freedom to dissent". 

The letter is addressed to Professor Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). It opens: "The fabric of international co-operation may be torn apart by dismay at the severe restrictions on freedom of thought and expression still being applied to Saudi Arabian society".

The letter targets KAUST because of its ambitions to work in the international academic community. The insitutition is relatively modernised – it welcomes mixed gender education and allows Saudi women to drive on campus – but many Western academics and scientists are uncomfortable with working with an institution so closely associated with the Saudi government. 

Kate Allen, the human rights director of Amnesty International, called on KAUST to speak out. "Freedom of speech ought to be defended and celebrated in Riyadh just as much as anywhere else in the world, and we’d like to see KAUST issuing a statement in support of Raif Badawi. Meanwhile, the Saudi authorities should call off the remaining 950 lashes for Mr Badawi and release him immediately. Raif is a free-speech activist and a prisoner of conscience, not a criminal."

There has been a global outcry over Badawi's treatment, but outrage has not extended to the UK so far. David Cameron's government, those resolute devotees to the preservation of free speech, have been fairly silent on the matter – maybe because the Saudis are our main trading partner in the Middle East.

They say money talks, but it also shuts you up.