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Jailed Saudi blogger hailed by Los Angeles journalists as crown prince tours US

Imprisoned Saudi blogger given the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism as he enters his sixth year in Saudi prison
Raif Badawi (screengrab/Twitter)

Imprisoned Saudi writer and blogger Raif Badawi was awarded the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism on Monday, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman entered the second week of his visit to the US.

The Los Angeles Press Club’s Daniel Pearl award will be received by Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and children at the 24 June awards gala in Los Angeles. Haider and her three children now live in Quebec and have been granted permanent residency in Canada.

The LA Press Club's president, Chris Palmeri, said in a statement on Monday: “Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy and we must be vigilant, even with our allies, to make sure that imprisonment and torture are not used to stifle public discourse or discontent.”

Daniel Pearl was a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in early 2002.

Bin Salman is using his US trip to help gain support for his Vision 2030 agenda, a programme of economic and social reforms designed to look to a future without oil revenues, and to re-brand his conservative kingdom. It follows a similar visit to the UK in early March. 

Renewed calls for Badawi’s release come as US President Donald Trump has cosied up to the prince, strengthening US-Saudi ties which had grown strained under the Obama administration, in part over differing views towards Riyadh's regional rival Iran.

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“Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they're going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world,” Trump said last week in a meeting with bin Salman. 

However, bin Salman has faced widespread criticism for orchestrating a kingdom-wide crackdown on dissent after taking over the position of crown prince in June last year.

Many social and religious figures remain in prison, with many royals having their assets seized. 

“These apparently politically motivated arrests are another sign that Mohammed bin Salman has no real interest in improving his country’s record on free speech and the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The crown prince, who is also the defence minister, is on a public relations blitz while travelling in the US, with stops in New York, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston to cultivate investments.

Badawi was arrested in Saudi in 2012 on charges of "insulting Islam through electronic channels". In 2013, he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes, later extended to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2014, as well as a $266,000 fine fine and a travel ban.

He had previously co-founded the Free Saudi Liberals website, which called for reform in the conservative kingdom.

In an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May last year, Amnesty International called for renewed and intensified efforts from the Canadian government to push Riyadh to free Badawi, as his family resides in the country's province of Quebec.

Bin Salman capped his rapid rise to power last June by replacing his elder cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had close relationships with US intelligence and defence circles, as crown prince.  

Trump praised the king's move to elevate Bin Salman and called US-Saudi ties strong as ever. 

"I thought your father made a very wise decision. And I miss your father - a special man," Trump said.