For the sixth week in a row, Saudi writer, blogger, and activist Raif Badawi was not publicly flogged today for insulting his home country’s state religion. Amnesty International broke the news as soon as the organization could confirm it:
No one is breathing a sigh of relief that this counts as sparing him, or that he is about to be freed. The 31-year-old husband and father has now spent 1000 days in jail with little to no contact with the outside world. According to news reports, there was no reason given by Saudi officials for the delay.
Reasons 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 see him.
As with any prisoner, one of conscience or otherwise, the prisoner’s family is held captive as well. (I have some experience with this.) It is not known if Raif spends his week anticipating a Friday flogging like the one he experienced on January 9, at which he received fifty lashes. Prison doctors reported the week after that whipping that his wounds had not healed, which is why they recommended postponing the second round of fifty lashes on January 16, and one assumes ever since. 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—to the same spots. This is done publicly. The wounds are cruelly 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.
Every Friday morning comes the tense wait to see whether an official announcement will be made, or whether anyone on the ground in Saudi Arabia reports seeing him among the prisoners receiving corporal punishment or seeing that he is not among that week’s prisoners.
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. The Specialized Criminal Court of Appeal, which hears terrorism cases, reaffirmed the 15-year sentence just last week.
When President Obama visited the new Saudi king last month, he did not express an opinion about the dozen prisoners of conscience and the international protests to the monarch. 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 not 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.”
Ten days ago, the United Kingdom’s Prince Charles did what President Obama did not do: he spoke of his concerns for the young writer out loud with King Salman, the new monarch. The discussions were private, but the fact that Raif Badawi was a topic and that this fact was acknowledged in public may mean … something. Fears were voiced that the response would come in the form of another flogging at the next opportunity, but the opposite has happened so far: he has not been flogged, not publicly, not for six consecutive weeks. But Raif Badawi remains in prison, continues to face a comically expensive fine—when King Salman granted amnesty to select prisoners upon taking the throne last month, amnesty was granted to those whose fines were a smaller amount than Raif’s—and he remains unheard.
Being able to write what I write whenever I please, I happily take those things for granted. I click on the “publish” button with no thought that a policeman will knock on my door soon after. Once in a while, I take advantage of that privilege to shine my small light towards a ideal future when others can celebrate that kind of life, too. I have been publicly informed (only once so far, but it felt like twice) that I am offending readers by doing this. That felt nothing like a flogging.
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