Raif Badawi and Torture

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded each year by the European Parliament to those who have “dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought,” as the Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov did. The name of the winner is to be announced this Thursday. Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger who was arrested and convicted of “insulting Islam,” is one of the three finalists for the award.

The Prize was created in 1988 and its past laureates include Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai. Several of the award winners have lived their lives under harsh or repressive circumstances, as Andrei Sakharov did, and continue to face harassment or live in prison, as Raif Badawi still does. As of today, he has spent 1251 days in jail and was whipped once, all for his writings.

High-level reports are out today, October 27, that his punishment—the flogging—will resume this week in a terrible, unofficially official, commentary from the Saudi authorities about Raif possibly winning this prestigious human rights honor.

According to a statement published just about two hours ago, Ensaf Haidar, Raif’s wife, reported that she has learned that, “the Saudi authorities have given the green light to the resumption of Raif Badawi’s flogging. The informed source also said that the flogging will resume soon but will be administered inside the prison.” (This is something that I have long feared, that any abuse in prison would be granted official permission.) Ensaf adds, “It is worth mentioning that the same source had warned me of Raif’s pending flogging at the beginning of January 2015 and his warning was confirmed, as Raif was flogged on 9th January.”

People with contacts in the Mideast and in the Arabian peninsula are scrambling right now to verify the report from Ensaf’s source. If this source is indeed the same person who correctly informed her that he was about to be whipped in January, and if this source remains trustworthy 10 months later, one understands why she published this in as many places as she could as quickly as she did today. Some are reporting this morning that their contacts in the region have nothing to report about Raif’s punishment resuming in a couple days, but one must remember that silence is sometimes the loudest declaration in this stories.

One source reports that English PEN has been informed and is intending to send an urgent message to the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond. English Pen awarded Raif Badawi its PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage three weeks ago. That organization’s Twitter account has not yet published any statement, but it did re-Tweet Ensaf’s urgent message, which I reprint here:

This report about the possible resumption of Raif Badawi’s flogging is being taken as seriously as it is being taken for several reasons: first, if it is merely a rumor, it is an example of the information-starved torture that Raif’s wife is subjected to every damn day; second, it follows Saudi Arabia’s reprehensible statement earlier this month about Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the youth whose sentence of beheading has aroused international concern: “#SaudiArabia rejects any form of interference in its internal affairs. #AliAlNimr”; and third, because it follows one day after a quietly angry editorial by the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom was published in the Telegraph.

The editorial is titled, “How Saudi Arabia helps Britain keep the peace.” (One shudders at the unconscious echo of every movie depiction of a shakedown that is implicit in that statement: “It’d be a pity to have anything happen to your nice little shop here, wouldn’t it?”)

In the editorial, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Ambassador, expands on the “rejects any form of interference in its internal affairs” portion of the above Tweet. He opens: “Over the past few weeks, there has been an alarming change in the way Saudi Arabia is discussed in Britain. The Kingdom has always had to deal with a lack of understanding and misconceptions, but on this occasion I feel compelled to address some of the recent criticisms.”

The ambassador worries that the relationship between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, the “mutually beneficial strategic partnership,” is being harmed by criticism coming from England over internal Saudi affairs. He reminds readers that the two nations have a decades-long partnership, but before he gets to that, he declares, “Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state. Our Kingdom is led by our rulers alone, and our rulers are led by Islam alone. Our religion is Islam and our constitution is based on the Holy Qu’ran. Our justice system is based on Sharia law and implemented by our independent judiciary. Just as we respect the local traditions, customs, laws and religion of Britain, we expect Britain to grant us this same respect. We do not seek special treatment, but we do expect fairness.”

The ambassador then turns to the case of Ali al-Nimr, without naming the young man. “One recent example of this mutual respect being breached was when Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition, claimed that he had convinced Prime Minister David Cameron to cancel a prison consultancy contract with Saudi Arabia worth £5.9 million. This coincided with speculation linking the contract’s cancellation to a number of domestic events in the Kingdom. If the extensive trade links between the two countries are going to be subordinate to certain political ideologies, then this vital commercial exchange is going to be at risk. We want this relationship to continue but we will not be lectured to by anyone. Hasty decisions prompted by short-term gains often do more harm than good in the longer term.”

(The Justice Minister, Michael Gove, did indeed explicitly connect the cancellation of his ministry’s contract with the Saudi Justice Ministry to U.K. concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia, if not to the Ali al-Nimr case explicitly.)

The ambassador reminds his readers that Saudi Arabian intelligence has helped protect British citizens by foiling terrorist plots being constructed by al-Qaeda. This is certainly true, but it is an empty equation. It is declaration by one’s neighbor that, since they helped you clean up the neighborhood, you should—no, must—you must ignore the cage in the backyard in which he keeps his wife and children. No, we must not. We do not. We can not.

I wrote this recently:

A government’s most precious job is to protect the least of its living citizens from bullies. But what happens when that government is the bully? What can outsiders do or say? What can a country allied with that bully say or do? How can we protect the vulnerable inside a bullying nation? How can we protect the vulnerable who are vulnerable because they have the brave audacity to tell the world that they live in a morally bankrupt theocracy? (Like Raif Badawi.)
We can’t. We can only celebrate their bravery and the fact they use their voice in a dark country and hope that more like them appear. 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.
Of course, when certain regimes pursue violent solutions to problems that only they perceive (the very definition of ‘internal affairs’), sometimes it is easy for the United States (or other nations) to criticize. We here certainly celebrated the samizdat dissidents in the USSR during the Cold War, like Andrei Sakharov. We certainly did not hold back our shock and anger at the violently intolerant Taliban when it took Kabul in the late 1990s. Afghanistan does not sell us our oil, though. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a dear friend and ally at our pumps.
In real life if not diplomacy, we recognize that our truest friends are those who feel secure enough in the friendship to call us out when we err. But diplomacy is not friendship.

Diplomacy is not friendship. And to remind me, an American writer, that my nation, the United States, commits human rights violations both inside and outside our borders is to plea for permission to commit more acts of empty cruelty within one’s own borders. We need all the dissidents we can get.

* * * *
The following pieces have appeared in The Gad About Town concerning Raif Badawi:

 September 14: Award Raif Badawi the Nobel Peace Prize
August 18: Tortured
June 17: Three Years in Prison for Blogging
June 10: An Urgent Need for Action
June 7: A Sense of Injustice
June 1: Speak out for Those Who Can’t
May 7: Ignite the Light
April 3: We Want Life
March 13: Raif Badawi and Official Cruelty
March 6: Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
February 20: 1000 Days
February 6: #FreeRaif, Week 5
January 31: Raif Badawi, Week 3
January 22: An Update about Raif Badawi
January 12: For Raif Badawi

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