This column was revisited one year later, in August 2016, here: “One Year Ago: A Public Torture.”
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The cane broke. Isn’t that all we need to know? The switch broke.
Raymond Johansen allowed himself to be tortured yesterday in solidarity with Saudi writer Raif Badawi. He was hit 50 times with a cane in Trafalgar Square, where public corporal punishments were once seen regularly but not since the 1830s. He had difficulty walking after and even expressed confusion as to where he was upon speaking with a reporter.
When a caning is administered it sometimes does not look as severe as one thinks a beating would look; even one of the words we use minimizes the severity: lashes. In writing about the Saudi Arabian writer Raif Badawi, who was sentenced last year to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison, I have run into this weakness of language. All language is analogy, and I have wanted the analogy to convey the pain of judicial corporal punishment. Few do. Perhaps none do. Raymond Johansen’s action pumped life into the analogies.
There are thousands of prisoners of conscience around the world, some publicly known and an unknown number secretly held. The U.S. has dark prisons in whose shadows every American lives. (One can think that those individuals imprisoned secretly by the U.S. for possibly doing anything against U.S. interests ought to be held or ought to face the justice system, but the matter is always trumped by the fact they are being held secretly and are not tried.) Raif Badawi is a prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia, one of 30,000 in that country, according to some sources, but this 31-year-old prisoner of conscience is the one who was flogged. On January 9, he was hit 50 times with a cane, and he faces 19 more such sessions with a cane to complete his sentence of 1000 lashes.
Even those sympathetic to Raif Badawi’s plight and outraged by corporal punishment generally have found themselves duped by the seeming absence of ferociousness: when he was caned on January 9, someone recorded a few moments illegally on a cellphone, and at least one writer emphasized the “public humiliation” aspect. (In Saudi Arabia, sentences of corporal punishment above prison time are carried out in a public square. Every Friday afternoon, after Friday prayers, citizens milling about in downtown Jeddah see an unmarked van slow down and park, shackled prisoners file out, and corporal punishment is meted out by an anonymous prison authority. The closest onlookers might hear the authority quickly declare the sentence before he carries it out; anyone a few yards away will probably not hear any declaration but will certainly see the punishment.)
In January, I shared the video of Raif Badawi being flogged. It is 30 seconds long. You hear 20 of the 50 strikes delivered against his thin body. Raif briefly moves to the right or his leg buckles toward the end. He is dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. I show it here again.
It is unpleasant; I wish I could make it as heartbreaking for viewers as it must be for his wife. Perhaps this will: he was sentenced to this and 19 more such canings for writing sentences like this: “Liberalism is based on the concept of personal freedom and respect for the freedoms of others. It’s about mutual tolerance that is not ruled by indifference or disinterest. The belief system of liberalism is advancement. It believes freedom in itself is good and works towards good. It believes the truth comes out of dialogue, and constant improvement is a natural movement for humanity.” (Not one U.S. President would have rejected those lines from a speechwriter.) Here is the video:
On YouTube, one comment reads: “That’s it?? That’s a flogging??? Shit I have seen worse beatings by american women, I would gladly trade places…lol.” Ah, the convenience of living in a country in which this probably is not an official punishment. Another: “Looks like he is getting a back massage. What kind of flogging is this???”
Ignorance does not anger me; celebrating one’s ignorance infuriates.
Make no mistake: flogging is torture, even though some countries do not consider it to be. Underneath his or her clothes, a person whipped with a thin switch will feel welts erupt and some of these will be cut with further blows into a bloody, irreparable, mass. Even if the person wielding the cane attempts to avoid hitting spots more than once, if he is tasked with delivering 50 blows quickly, this is not feasible. Welts will be hit bloody. And if the person wielding the cane is not attempting some minimal gentleness, the victim will be injured. Raif Badawi was injured on January 9, and the authorities have not followed through with the remainder of his sentence. The only official reason given is that he has not recovered from the injuries he received. There are reports that he has lost weight; more ominous, reports are that his limited time on the telephone has been further limited by authorities without explanation.
As of today, 33 countries still legally use judicial corporal punishment. The majority are in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast. Most employ caning such as seen in Saudi Arabia; some still officially employ a cat o’ nine tails. Most limit the use of this punishment to men, but not all do; some countries consider it a punishment for youths and limit its use to male children. Many whip women as well as men, children as well as adults.
Prisoners of conscience are most certainly included in those punished by inflicting injury. Thoughts and words are considered so dangerous in some countries that physical punishment is inflicted. (Some would include the U.S. on this list. We certainly imprison people for writing things that officials consider aiding and abetting.)
Raymond Johansen is an activist whose Twitter account lists several areas of activism: “#Backlash #FreeRaif | #FreeAnons Advisory Board | Int. Team PP-NO | Hard core pirate | Global Privacy activist.” He is one of many social media activists working to raise awareness about Raif Badawi and prisoners of conscience. From my limited online encounters with him, he appears to not require things like sleep.
He is also a torture survivor. In 2001, the then-35-year-old Norwegian was “kidnapped by masked men who must have thought that he was a police agent. He was attached to a wall with a belt around his neck and handcuffed—before he was beaten with a weapon and tortured for over eight hours the night of July 17.” (A translation by Microsoft Bing from a Norwegian press account.) The judge of the case described what he lived through as “severe sadistic torture.”
He was beaten by five men for eight hours straight. He did not volunteer his body for a caning in Trafalgar Square lightly. He was not asked to do this by others. He came up with the idea himself for others. A friend in Anon UK Radio, Tony Cleneghan, administered the caning, and from the video, it does not look like he held back, even though from this hug, it looks like he may have wanted to:
The two men unfurled a #FreeRaif banner. Cleneghan started to hit Johansen. A cane broke and Cleneghan replaced it. A policeman interrupted to halt the protest. He seems unsure if this was a protest or performance. A crowd assembled. Johansen, dressed in a leather jacket with a Guy Fawkes mask on his sleeve and black jeans, appears steady and sure of himself while the beating is interrupted, but his comments immediately after betray his confusion and his physical condition: “I’m in pain. Having flashbacks. [To his torture in 2001.] Uh. Ehhhhhand really not sure where I am in my torture chamber from 2001.” It takes him a few moments.
A day later (today), he wrote, “Struggling as expected. It will take me some time to recover. But I’m ready to continue to work. Flashbacks and loads of pain. Muscles and tendons and welts.” Despite the jeans, his legs were covered in welts. Sixteen minutes into the video below, he shows the back of his right leg and Cleneghan shows the broken cane he used. Photographer Linda Bowyer took the images, including the one I used at the top of this column.
What can you do to bring attention to the heartbreaking story of Raif Badawi and his brave wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is fighting the government of Saudi Arabia for his freedom? A group called Backlash has organized a campaign called #ReadRaif.
Vera Scott developed the idea, which “is designed to encourage everyone to not merely support Badawi’s freedom, but to understand what he stands for, and how he posed no threat to either Islam or Saudi Arabia. Rasha Ahmed, coordinator of the #ReadRaif campaign, said, ‘We will increase or efforts and push for his release. We can’t just give up.'” (From an article in The Fifth Column. Disclosure: Both Vera Scott and Rasha Ahmed are online friends. I am proud to share anything either woman develops.)
If you have purchased a copy of “1000 Lashes, Because I Say What I Think,” take a photo of yourself with the book and use the hashtag #ReadRaif. If you have not yet, find a quote by Raif Badawi and share that with the same hashtag.
Celebrities like Ani DiFranco and Jimmy Wales are taking part. This story remains important, and all prisoners of conscience must be freed.
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