For the third week in a row, Raif Badawi, a writer in Saudi Arabia, was not whipped fifty times yesterday as part of his public punishment for insulting his nation’s official religion in his blog. No one is breathing a sigh of relief that this counts as sparing him, or that he is about to be freed.
Last week, when I wrote about this ongoing story (“An Update about Raif Badawi“), I quoted one speaker from an article in the Guardian and gave the partial identification given in the article as the complete identification of the speaker. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is indeed a Jordanian prince in the Hashemite dynasty, the same family that the current King of Jordan is the head of. Perhaps more importantly, Prince Zeid is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and has been since September. It is not the Guardian’s mistake that I did not do all of my reading. It is my error.
Two weeks ago, the Commissioner spoke out very forcefully on the Badawi story: “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.” In a press release quoting Prince Zeid from two weeks ago, the UN added that
The UN Committee against Torture—which oversees the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—and the Human Rights Committee have repeatedly voiced concerns about the use of flogging as punishment by Member States and have called for its abolition. Saudi Arabia’s report on its implementation of the Convention is up for review by the Committee against Torture next year.
One major news story took place in Saudia Arabia between last Friday’s flogging cancellation and yesterday’s flogging cancellation: King Abdullah died and his half-brother, Salman, became the new King. King Salman issued pardons on Thursday, raising hope that Raif Badawi would be among them. Conditions were placed on the pardons, however: “The royal order applies to public right prisoners whose fines do not exceeding $133,333, and stipulates that non-Saudi prisoners be deported and prohibited from returning to the country, settles financial claims against prisoners have not benefited from such a settlement.” No names were given; Badawi’s fine is reported to be twice that amount.
The BBC has pointed out that when King Abdullah issued pardons, he did so under his own name, but the new king instructed his interior ministry to create the list and conditions for release; since that is the national justice department and police force, the BBC wrote that “if Raif is one of those prisoners offered a pardon, it will come with conditions he must sign in exchange for freedom. Typically, pardoned activists have had to stop their work and give up their right to free expression.” As of January 31, it does not appear that Raif Badawi was among the unnamed pardoned.
Amnesty International described the matter more bluntly: “This is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse since the Ministry of Interior has been the main authority implicated in silencing activists and imprisoning them in the first place.”
Amnesty officially recognizes a dozen peaceful activists who are prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia.
When President Obama visited the new king last week, certain parts of the American media decided to become fixated on the First Lady’s clothes. Little attention was given to whether or not the president might express an opinion about the dozen prisoners of conscience and the international protests. Officially, he did not, according to reports. In advance of meeting King Salman, President Obama told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”
I wrote last week that
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.
Thus, over our concerns that if we officially complain about prisoners of conscience in one country, they will simply point out our own prisoners held unjustly, we do not officially, diplomatically, say anything.
As with any prisoner, one of conscience or otherwise, the prisoner’s family is held captive as well. It is not known if Raif spends his week anticipating a Friday flogging like the one he experienced earlier this month. Doctors who have looked at him reported that his wounds had not healed, which is why they recommended postponing the second round of fifty lashes two weeks ago. That is the thing about caning: the cane opens slashing wounds which, if they do not heal, can become infected. So the wardens wait for the wounds to heal so the next set of canings can be administered. Publicly. The wounds are re-opened. Because we do not know if the prisoner is spending the week anticipating the next round of fifty, his family spends the week anticipating it for him.
His wife, Ensaf Haidar, is a refugee living in Québec right now, and Canadian officials are certainly bringing their outrage about the matter to the attention of Saudi officials.
An article in the Canadian newspaper The Star states that, “Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Development Minister Christian Paradis and Andrew Bennett, Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom, have all issued statements condemning Badawi’s sentence. Baird brought the matter up last week in Davos, Switzerland, with Prince Turki Al Faisal, a member of the ruling House of Saud. The prince is scheduled to visit Ottawa in mid-February.”
The article concludes with a quote from one member of parliament, Wayne Marston, who said that, “As far as changing the laws of Saudi Arabia, that will be up to the people of Saudi Arabia to do. But our role would be to remind them of the value of human rights, the value of free speech, and the importance of having both.”
Writing about this and speaking out is important. Amnesty International has posted a list of suggestions for taking up the campaign: “Five Ways You Can Help Raif Badawi.”
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