A couple weeks ago I wrote about the plight of an activist and blogger named Raif Badawi, who was arrested and found guilty of insulting his country’s religion and sentenced to 20 straight weeks of public whipping, among other punishments. (“For Raif Badawi.”)
As I wrote nine days ago, the first set of fifty blows against him was delivered three Fridays ago, just before the weekly call to prayers in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia. Cellphone videos showed some of the whipping.
Word is out today that for the second week in a row, the authorities have decided to postpone Friday’s series of fifty lashes. His health may be at risk, according to an update on Amnesty International’s website (“Doctors find Raif Badawi unfit for flogging“), so this week’s flogging has been put off:
The planned flogging of Raif Badawi is likely to be suspended this Friday after a medical committee assessed that he should not undergo a second round of lashes on health grounds. The committee, comprised of around eight doctors, carried out a series of tests on Raif Badawi at the King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah yesterday and recommended that the flogging should not be carried out.
Amnesty International used the term “likely” for good reason: simply because a reported medical committee has made a reported recommendation does not mean that the recommendation will be heeded at his prison or by his guards, so tomorrow’s flogging may take place anyway. Badawi himself may not know about this one-week delay, and may be preparing himself for tomorrow’s expected punishment even now (as if one even can prepare oneself for a flogging).
An Amnesty official, Said Boumedouha, said, “Raif Badawi is still at risk, there is no way of knowing whether the Saudi Arabian authorities will disregard the medical advice and allow the flogging to go ahead.”
Boumedouha also pointed out that this weekly routine of “health assessments” and declarations of his fitness or non-fitness to be beaten in public provides Badawi and his loved ones with a whole other kind of torment: weekly suspense over whether or not there will be relief or punishment this week. It is a new, psychological, sort of punishment.
Are the two suspensions an indication that international outcry is having a positive effect on the case? Not likely. According to the Guardian newspaper, the medical authorities reported that Badawi’s wounds had not yet healed from the first flogging. They are following their legal scripts to the T. There have been ten beheadings in that country so far in 2015, so international humanitarian and legal protests may truly be falling on that judicial system’s deaf ears.
What did Badawi do? What is the nature of his crime? He is a blogger, like you or me. A re-cap: He has been living in a Kafka-esque dreamscape of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy since 2008. In May of last year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes, to be meted out in sets of fifty lashes each Friday for twenty weeks. For over a year, his sentence was publicly changed multiple times between six years and 600 lashes and ten years/1000 lashes while his case bounced between a higher court and a lower court in his country’s legal system.
His country is Saudi Arabia, and as a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of a fellow writer and the freedom of ideas. I have written in the past about things I do not like about my country (its use of capital punishment, for instance), and I vote my conscience on these issues, In another country, I might have been arrested for expressing my views, but it has not happened here.
Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and many other organizations have taken up Badawi’s cause, possibly in part because of its clear-cut blatancy: A man is being publicly flogged because he is a writer and has expressed ideas his government would rather he not.
In 2008, he set up a website, a blog named “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and he was arrested, questioned, and released. He was then charged with insulting Islam, left the country, was told the charges were being dropped, returned home because he has a young family there, and then was blocked from leaving the country again, which is never an indication of good things to come. The web site continued, and he was arrested again in 2012 when a religious leader said that his website “infringes on religious values” and proved that he is an apostate, or one who renounces his religion. In his country, apostasy carries with it a sentence of death, and that legal question—is Raif Badawi an apostate or not?—is what has kept his case bouncing between courts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A lower court declared that it did not have the authority to decide, and it referred the case to a higher court which then decided that the lower court could indeed decide if Badawi is an apostate.
He was cleared of the apostasy charge, which freed the courts to sentence him for the charges that he was considered guilty of from pretty much the moment he was arrested in 2012: insulting the faith and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” Ten years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a one million riyal fine. And his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, was arrested and found guilty of setting up a human rights monitor organization, which landed the lawyer a 15-year jail sentence.
The humanitarian outcry may not be getting the attention of the authorities in Saudi Arabia, but it may be getting the attention of some who can get the attention of those authorities. The United States placed a call that probably sounded a little bit like a complaint. Nothing happened. So did the government of the United Kingdom and many other countries. The response was a flogging. And the authorities in Saudia Arabia can point to stories in which American writers and journalists in other countries that are decrying Badawi’s treatment have been jailed or face jail time for the crime of telling the truth, so they feel that they can tell us to stick it.
But the Guardian quotes Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who it says is a member of the Jordanian royal family. Perhaps those closer to inside that world are being affected by the humanitarian outcry. He spoke forcefully on the issue and said, “Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment. Such punishment is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the convention against torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified. I appeal to the king of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Mr. Badawi, and to urgently review this type of extraordinarily harsh penalty.”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 22 asks, “What person whom you don’t know very well in real life—it could be a blogger whose writing you enjoy, a friend you just recently made, etc.—would you like to have over for a long chat in which they tell you their life story?”
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