At heart, it is a love story. Love of truth. Love of fairness, of justice. The love of a young couple with young children. Love is optimism, you see. Love can build a world that has truth and fairness in it.
Building a family is perhaps the most optimistic act possible; fighting for a better country and world demands vigilance in the name of that optimism.
One year ago today a young writer, activist, husband, and dad was given a court’s sentence: 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes with a cane or a whip, to be delivered in a public square in sets of 50 each Friday until the 1000 have been delivered. So far one set of 50 was meted out, on January 9. He has been in a small prison cell for almost 1100 days now, 1077 today if my count is correct.
A great many activists have been writing, blogging, making phone calls, standing outside embassies each Friday—a great many are standing outside embassies today in honor of the sad anniversary—asking powerful people to speak to other powerful people to right what they feel is a great wrong. It is a love story, but the ending still appears to be far, far distant.
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The young man I am writing about is named Raif Badawi and his personal story is one about injustice, about the idea that a person can face corporal and capital punishment for possessing ideas and for writing them down and publishing them, and his story also represents one that is being seen too often, in too many places around the world.
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. So far, officially, it has not. I can only write and publish this to add to the sound of millions demanding justice. It is not a pleasant sound, but it is a sweet one.
What did he do? What is the nature of his crime? He is a blogger, like you or me. A writer. He has been living in a Kafka-like dreamscape of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy since 2008. Last May 7, he was given the ten years/1000 lashes sentence. For months before that, this 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. It was inhumane dithering.
In 2008, he set up a website, a blog (on WordPress, like this one) named “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and he was arrested and released. He was then charged with insulting his country’s religion. He left Saudi Arabia, was told the charges were being dropped, returned home, and then was blocked from leaving that country again, which is never an indication of good things to come. Never. The web site continued, and he was arrested again in 2012 when a religious leader said that his website “infringes on religious values” and that this 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 particular legal matter—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. So far. However, the court declared him guilty of the charges that it pretty much considered him guilty of from 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 this spring.
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.
When President Obama visited the new Saudi king, Salman, this winter, he did not express an opinion about the many prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabian prisons 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.” Secretary of State John Kerry has not uttered Raif Badawi’s name in his public dealings with the House of Saud.
I understand. The humanitarian outcry and the many statements from other countries’ diplomats do not get the attention of the authorities in Saudi Arabia simply because there would be very little backing up those statements. Why make an empty statement that will be received with an empty statement? To not try, though, is horrifying.
The complaints, official or otherwise, are considered an insult. When several governments spoke out on Raif’s behalf at the end of 2014, the response was the public flogging on January 9. When the German foreign minister addressed the issue in a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, the government issued a cold and anonymous statement: “Saudi Arabia expresses its intense surprise and dismay at what is being reported by some media about the case of citizen Raif Badawi and his sentence. Saudi Arabia at the same time emphasises that it does not accept interference in any form in its internal affairs.”
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.
When writers blog about this story, the response from persons claiming to be from Saudi Arabia usually looks like this, a person telling the activist to stick it:
— MESHARI (@meshari1407) May 7, 2015
It seems to me to be a terrible bit of empty equivalency: America does wrong, so this matter is not a wrong. Yes, wrongs are committed here, Mr. Meshari. (Why his Twitter account has a picture of Ben Affleck, I do not know.) I know that I write and complain … about them … a lot.
(Vera Scott, by the way, has been one of the most passionate voices in this matter. This story has introduced me to some brave and passionate people: Ensaf Haidar. Elham Manea. Samar Badawi, who is not only Raif Badawi’s sister, but also the wife of Raif’s jailed lawyer.)
Attention must be paid to all of these cases, here in America and abroad.
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I started out saying this is a love story. It is. To mark the one-year anniversary of her husband’s extraordinary sentence, Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, wrote a letter to The Independent in the United Kingdom. It was translated and published yesterday. It is one of thousands of letters and speeches this quiet woman of dignity has given in the three years since her husband was incarcerated. In 2012, she fled Saudi Arabia with the couples’ three children and now lives in Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada. For three years, any photo of Ensaf and her husband has been a photo of her holding a photo of her husband.
She simply asks that her husband be allowed to leave their home country and join his family:
Join together your hands so we can ignite the light.
On this day I am standing strong and filled with happiness by the world’s recognition today of my husband Raif Badawi, imprisoned for his opinion and mind.
Raif was never a criminal, a gangster or drug dealer, but the Saudi authorities dealt with him like a criminal deserving of punishment, floggings and imprisonment for a long unspecified period.
Raif was just a man of thought who conveyed that thought in writing. He was dreaming of and aspiring towards a beautiful world. He wanted us, in a country of one opinion, one way of thinking and one religion, to respect difference.
Voicing his thoughts loudly annoyed the Saudi authorities but they have made him into an icon of freedom—not only in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the world. On this day, hundreds of Raif’s sympathisers stand in front of Saudi embassies across the four corners of the world demanding Raif’s freedom.
My companion Raif Badawi, imprisoned for his opinion, has now served almost three years of his life in confinement and is still threatened with more bloodshed, for the sake of what he believed (a Saudi-liberal network).
Two days ago Raif gained three prestigious international awards: these awards send a clear message of shame and error that must be corrected to the Saudi regime who continue Raif’s imprisonment.
I appeal to the respected Saudi Crown Prince and his successor to grant Raif amnesty and allow him to leave Saudi Arabia for Canada, where we, his family, live.
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