Raif Badawi: A Cloud of Uncertainty

UPDATED at 11:00 p.m. EST, December 11: A second source reports that a confirmation has been received that Raif Badawi has indeed started a hunger strike, which emphasizes the point made in the article that follows: that the Raif Badawi story is a fluid one, changing moment by moment. The article was published at 10:00 p.m. and one hour later, an update was required. Because it describes the many open questions and pressing concerns about Raif Badawi’s situation as it stands right now, I am publishing the article as it was, here:

The international media on Thursday picked up the story that Raif Badawi started a hunger strike last week while in prison. Every publication that has covered this unfolding case, from The Guardian to The Gad About Town, quoted or paraphrased a statement that Badawi, the young Saudi blogger who was found guilty of “insulting Islam” and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes with a cane, was moved to a different prison with no explanation offered by authorities, and that he has started a hunger strike.

The Guardian reported that Amnesty International has not yet confirmed the hunger strike, and this lack of a confirmation is important to note. Not one publication, not Amnesty International nor the team of activists that has been assembled around this story, has been able to confirm the validity of the purported hunger strike. This is the second time that a hunger strike by Raif Badawi has been rumored. It is quite possible that this particular story, because it often draws sympathy from the public, is being used by someone to manipulate the media and those activists. In which direction and to what end are two of several remaining questions.

Each Friday, those who closely follow the Badawi case wait for a confirmation that Raif Badawi was seen among those being publicly punished—or if he was not seen among those prisoners. Ever since that terrible day, January 9, 2015, in which Badawi was seen and even recorded being flogged, his absence among prisoners being punished has been noted and reported. Each Friday from January 16 on, the report that Raif Badawi was not flogged has been usually published online by an Amnesty International-vetted source. None of these sources, more than 15 as of this writing, reported or could confirm that Raif Badawi has begun a hunger strike.

The story is more complicated than the media is allowing itself to present it. It always has been.

A representative connected to Amnesty International is quoted in the mainstream media as saying that Badawi was moved from the prison that he had been held in to another prison for “administrative reasons.” The prison that he was reportedly moved to was described as “Prison Shabbat Central, located in a deserted and isolated area—around 87 KM from Jeddah City.” Sources in the “Free Raif Badawi” movement confirm that they have not been able to establish the existence of this prison, even from sources inside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A Google search of the name of the prison only turns up links to news articles from yesterday about Badawi’s hunger strike.

Sources confirm that Raif Badawi was in fact moved to a new prison, “Prison Dhahban Central,” which is in Jeddah. It was indeed for “administrative purposes.”

The Badawi case has become an extraordinarily high-profile one, a situation that the Saudi Arabian justice system and political class does not appear to have been prepared for. The work that Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, has performed, spearheading the creation of a Free Raif movement has been exemplary; the movement is international. The movement may have helped prevent further canings of Raif Badawi, and, as has been reported here and elsewhere, it may have won him a royal pardon.

The behind-the-scenes machinations of the Saudi Arabian judiciary are as confusing to outsiders (me) as bureaucratic machinations always appear to be. The Saudi Judiciary is tasked with coming up with a face-saving way to process how it will move one prisoner, now become famous, from a person it wanted to make an example of so others would not follow in his footsteps and write what they think to someone it may pardon sooner than his sentence allows.

On a personal level, I may be of the mind that the best, most face-saving gesture for Saudi Arabia would be to simply let Raif Badawi go free, immediately, and to allow him to re-unite with his family in Canada, ASAP. But I am not in charge here.

The 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought ceremony will be next week. The poetic moment in which its winner, Raif Badawi, arrives to collect the prize and speak out for human rights and freedom of speech is one that many people have scripted for themselves in their hopes. It will not take place. If, and this is a large if, a pardon from King Salman is in fact to be granted to Raif Badawi, it will come after that prize ceremony—after the attention to Raif Badawi’s absence at the ceremony has passed. This is what many sources in the Free Raif Badawi movement have spoken of to me.

The eyes of the world are watching every movement Saudi Arabia makes in this story … and even more importantly, many other human rights stories.

(I thank Raymond Johansen for his insight and help in researching this article. Follow him here on Twitter.)

* * * *
The rest of this column is taken from my column from November 28, “Raif Badawi: Is an End in Sight.” It brings matters up-to-date.

Raif 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:

 October 29: Winner of the Sakharov Prize: 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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