Raif Badawi: Is an End in Sight?

Yves Rossier, Switzerland’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, told a Swiss newspaper, La Liberté, yesterday that Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s sentence has been suspended.

“A royal pardon is in the works thanks to the head of state, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,” Rossier added.

The news follows a statement on Thursday from the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who was asked about Badawi’s plight in a news conference in Riyadh and replied, “The legal process is still ongoing and it’s up to the courts to decide what happens in this case.” Until al-Jubeir said this, most people following the Badawi case, including his wife, Ensaf Haidar, understood that as of June, Badawi’s legal options had been exhausted. (I wrote about this on June 7 in “A Sense of Injustice.”) It was not known that his case was “ongoing.”

In the beginning of June, it was announced that Badawi’s sentence of 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes with a cane had been upheld on appeal. The whipping was supposed to take place in sets of 50 blows at a time spread out over 20 weeks, but only one session was held, on January 9, 2015. Since then, every Thursday night and Friday morning, Badawi’s wife and family have waited for the news that Badawi has been whipped again or spared. A prisoner’s family is often held prisoner as well.

A royal pardon appeared to be Badawi’s only chance.

Badawi was arrested in June 2012 and charged with “insulting Islam” on his website, “Free Saudi Liberals.” He had founded the web site in 2008 and faced harassment regularly from that point on. At different moments in the convoluted court case, Badawi has been charged with apostasy (renouncing his religion), which is a capital crime in Saudi Arabia: he would have been beheaded if found guilty.

Instead, he was found guilty of insulting his nation’s religion in his writings, and there things appeared to stay for the last several months. A high-placed source reported that the caning would resume in October, but it did not.

His wife left the country with their three children in 2012 and human rights advocates helped her find a home in Quebec, Canada. She and the children have been building a life there, learning English and French, while Ensaf has traveled the world making people aware of her husband’s story, his words, his life.

Her efforts resulted in many human rights groups—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, English PEN, many others—speaking out. Vigils have been held every week around the world in front of Saudi embassies. Sometimes only a few people attend, often, hundreds attend. Every week.

Badawi was awarded the Sakharov Prize in October. Amnesty reported months ago that Badawi’s case has received more signatures than any other case in its history. Bono, Patti Smith, and many other entertainers/human rights advocates have told the story of Raif and Ensaf on stage many times this year.

The international outcry and vast attention from the human rights community about this story—a belief in freedom of thought and expression, a revulsion to corporal or even capital punishment for writing—appeared to put the Saudi justice system in a bind: to resume the caning would be a nose-thumbing at the international community. Further, Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, has been in jail for years (he was arrested while arguing in court), and he has begun to accumulate more and more noteworthy human rights prizes; he won this year’s Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize and his lawyer spoke at the prize ceremony just yesterday. (Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi, is Waleed’s wife, and she is as much a human rights powerhouse as her sister-in-law Ensaf: she still resides in Saudi Arabia, where she participated in the 2011 campaign to allow women to drive in that country. Saudi Arabia has refused to allow her to leave the country.)

The Badawi case led, I believe, to international attention on Saudi Arabia’s anti-freedom human rights record and to inquisitiveness about the pre-medieval judicial system of Sharia law, in which thoughts can be deemed worthy of beheading. As I type this, a mass execution is planned to take place in that nation in a few days. The individuals to be executed by beheading are people we would call activists. The international community has worked to spread awareness of this story far more quickly than if this was 2014 or earlier. We shall see if Saudi Arabia thumbs its nose at the international community, non-government organizations like Amnesty and politicians alike, by carrying out its form of pre-medieval justice.

* * * *
Audacity is not quiet, but Raif Badawi’s essays are quietly audacious. His stand against theism and against the bigotry that of necessity supports theism offends no one who knows that all individuals are free to believe (and to not believe) as they will, but that that particular freedom demands that no one, that no state, may dictate what transpires in another man’s head or heart.

In “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts,” Badawi recounts a moment in which a friend asks him how he will react when Hamas “liberates Palestine.” Badawi shocks his friend when he tells him, “I’d be the first to stand and fight Hamas.” He explains to us that although he is against Israel, he is “against replacing Israel with a religious entity built upon its ruins.” He goes on:

Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens. It’s important to stand in the way of such a mentality, to deny it from continuing its mission to murder the souls of its people, killing them deep within while they are still alive and breathing. …
Look what happened after the European nations managed to remove those clergy from public life and limit them to their churches, denying them any role outside those walls. European countries developed into nations buzzing with civilization, active in building the rights of the individual and exporting knowledge and science to the rest of humanity. …
States that are built on a religious foundation limit their own people in a circle of faith and fear. Abdullah al-Qasemi, the chief proponent of logical thinking in the Arab world [and whose works are banned in Saudi Arabia], agrees that other states celebrate the pleasures of brilliance, creativity, civilization, and life that are forbidden us.

Badawi does not report how his friend reacted to this; it strikes me that there are office-holding and office-pursuing individuals in the United States of America right now who sound like those whom Raif Badawi is writing against.

Raif Badawi is not a symbol; he is a human, a man, a writer, a blogger who wrote his opinions and published them yet lives in a nation in which writing opinions can be viewed as a crime. Yet his writing is peaceful, calm; he is the least inflammatory blogger in the world, but in this world of flames, that is the most revolutionary thing he could be. This is why his book, 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, is an important document in our times.

* * * *
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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