For the fourth 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.
Amnesty International broke the news this morning via Twitter:
“Reasons why not known.” What is known is that he was not publicly flogged. He was not part of a procession of prisoners driven to a public square and, without announcement, brought forth to be whipped. “Public” is a part of his decreed punishment, so one hopes that this means he is not being whipped in prison. Impartial doctors have not been allowed in to look at him.
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 on January 9. 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.
What did Raif Badawi do? What is the nature of his crime? He is a blogger, like you or me. A writer. 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—for a while, it was to be six years and 600 lashes, and then it was 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. He left his 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 kept his case bouncing between courts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A lower court declared that it did not have the authority to decide the apostasy issue, 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 spared him his life. The court sentenced him for the charges that he might have been 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.
When President Obama visited the new Saudi king last week, he did not express an opinion about the dozen prisoners of conscience and the international protests to the monarch. “Blogger Not on President’s Agenda. 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 understand. The humanitarian outcry and diplomatic contacts do no get the attention of the authorities in Saudi Arabia, because they do not need to. When governments spoke out on his behalf, the response was a public flogging on January 9 and then this weekly update made possible only by him not being among the prisoners flogged before Friday prayers. And the authorities in Saudi 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 writing, so they feel that they can tell us to stick it.
Attention must be paid to all those cases.
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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The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 6 asks, “Is there a place in the world you never want to visit? Where, and why not?” In a political system that punishes writers for writing.