In an open letter addressed to Jean-Lou Chameau, the president of the King Abudllah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, a group of 18 Nobel laureates, “friends of KAUST,” pleaded with the country’s leading academics to stand up against oppression of free thought; more precisely to openly decry the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.
Badawi, who created an open platform for discussion and criticised the Kingdom’s religious clerics, was handed down a 10-year prison term, and 1,000 lashes in punishment. A Youtube video taken on a mobile phone showing the flogging went viral; renewing concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights track record, and sending shock waves across the international community.
Now, the Nobel prizewinners – from France, Germany, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and South Africa – are not only urging KAUST academics to speak up and attempt to influence the sentence, which they hope that Saudi Arabia is already reconsidering, but they’re also suggesting that if they stay silent, it might reflect negatively on the important science and research hub they have built up.
“We write out of concern that the fabric of international cooperation may be torn apart by dismay at the severe restrictions on freedom of thought and expression still applied to Saudi Arabia society,” the letter reads. “We have no doubt that members of KAUST share that concern, aware that the cruel sentence passed, for example, on Mr. Raif Badawi who established a forum for open discussion, sent a shock around the world.”
Despite being firm in demanding an acknowledgement of the harshness of the sentence against the now-prominent blogger, the scientists showed understanding (clear in their wording of the letter) that in a country like Saudi Arabia, “change comes by degrees.” They still insisted that five years into the institution’s history, however, it’s “a crucial time for KAUST” to argue for “freedom of dissent, without which no institution of higher learning can be viable.”
“The undersigned friends of KAUST will be there to support you in asserting the values of freedom that we are all agreed are essential to the future of a University in this twenty first century, and that will determine the success of the extraordinary venture which you lead,” the letter concludes.
The full letter can be read here.