Raif Badawi’s Hunger Strike

UPDATE, January 28, 2016: Two statements have been published on Raif Badawi’s official Twitter account in the last two hours. (There are embedded below the fold).

One reads, “#RaifBadawi is attempting a strike again for not letting him and 120 other prisoners to use the phone to contact their families.” And the follow-up states, “A call out for the Head of KSA Prisons General: Ibrahim Hamzai to stop the negligence in Dhahban Penitentiary.”

Today is Raif Badawi’s 1344th day in prison for writing. Even in prison, officially silenced, he is not silent. I will update when I receive a second source. The Tweets:


* * * *
UPDATE, January 27, 2016: Ensaf Haidar posted a statement about Raif Badawi’s hunger strike on her online accounts three hours ago. It reads:

“Thanks God Raif Badawi stopped his strike
And we have news that his health is getting better.”

The remainder of my reporting (below the fold) remains as is from yesterday, as his reasons for the hunger strike remain.

* * * *
Raif Badawi started a hunger strike in prison two days ago in protest against his poor treatment in the prison. In response, the prison transferred him to solitary confinement yesterday, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, reported on her social media accounts this morning.

The Raif Badawi Foundation reported on its Facebook page that he has been denied health care since he was transferred to Dammam (or Dhahran) Central Prison near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, at the end of 2015. No doctor from outside the Saudi justice system, such as from Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders, has met with Raif since he was caned 54 weeks ago. Saudi officials reported a year ago that the caning was not resumed because he had been too severely injured and they were waiting for his injuries to heal.

Raif apparently began the hunger strike as a response to this lack of medical care. It is his second hunger strike. Rather than respond to his plea for medical care with medical care, the prison moved him into solitary confinement. (The statement from the Raif Badawi Foundation is below the fold:)

“We ask the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders, or other international humanitarian organizations, to try to intervene to enact care urgently. It is at its worst,” the Foundation wrote, adding, “And we call on the international political community through the European Parliament and the United Nations to intercede with the Saudi government to end this persecution of this prisoner of conscience.”

Raif Badawi’s Twitter account, which is managed by Ensaf Haidar and those she enlists to help her, adds that Raif is refusing fluids as well, which puts a clock rather than a calendar on what must follow: providing Raif Badawi with medical care from an outside source.


The case of Raif 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, 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, as I reported last fall.

The behind-the-scenes machinations of the Saudi Arabian judiciary are as confusing to outsiders (me) as all 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 “blasphemous” footsteps and write whatever they want to, 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 eyes of the world are watching every movement Saudi Arabia makes in this story … and even more importantly, many other human rights stories.

* * * *
Today is the 1342nd day Raif Badawi has spent in prison. After he was arrested, after a long trial, he was found guilty of having ideas that his country does not favor, even finds to be a threat. The authorities declared that his website “propagates liberal thought,” and the search for a punishment that it deemed proper took over a year to calculate. He spent that year in prison.

Raif Badawi’s writings include statements like this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear,” so the Saudi Arabian judicial system decided to live up to that observation.

The punishment for propagating ideas that Saudi Arabia finds liberal is spine-chilling: a public flogging, an exorbitant fine, many years in jail. The punishment levied at those the state declares officialy outside the official faith is extraordinary: a public beheading. Raif Badawi faced a trial on that charge, faced a trial at the end of which he might have been beheaded. He was exonerated of that particular charge.

Specifics such as number of hits with a cane, the duration of the imprisonment, or even the financial penalty are determined by a cruel calculus that only the judges seem to know how to unlock. It took several decisions to settle on Raif Badawi’s specific punishment, which wound up as a one million riyal fine (equal to $266,663 as of today), 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes with a cane in a public square. Since January 9, 2015, the caning portion of his sentence has not been resumed; at first it was reported that this was because his injuries had not healed, then a sick weekly ritual started, in which his family awaited word each Friday to learn if he had been among those publicly whipped or not.

In December, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, accepted the 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, for him. The international movement on his behalf, sparked by a young wife’s determination to make the world know her imprisoned husband’s name, led Amnesty International to declare months ago that it has received more signatures for petitions demanding his release than any other in its long and remarkable history. As far as I am concerned, Ensaf Haidar should be on every publication’s list of Most Heroic People of 2015. Badawi’s absence was itself a presence at the ceremony.

Since he was moved to Dammam Central Prison, rumors about his condition have circulated and it has been difficult to separate rumors from facts, since those two so often resemble one another. I trust my sources and I share what I have when I have it double-sourced. Raif has been in one prison since December, and in November, the Swiss Foreign Minister, Yves Rossier, reported that “a royal pardon is in the works thanks to the head of state, King Salman.” If this is in fact what is happening behind the scenes, for the Saudi judicial system it will be necessary for logic’s sake, as only a royal pardon can contravene a decision that was announced in June to uphold Badawi’s sentence of 10 years and 1000 lashes. After that decision, the only legal means available to release him has been (and is) a royal pardon.

I wrote last month, “The poetic moment in which the winner of the Sakharov Prize, 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 and hearts. 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.”

The international outcry from common citizens and political leaders alike, the 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. But to free him without anything less than a royal pardon would call into question the authority of the Saudi justice system in that nation’s own domestic politics.

The Badawi case led, I believe, to international attention on Saudi Arabia’s anti-freedom, anti-human rights, record and to consternation about the pre-medieval judicial system of its particular form of Sharia law, in which thoughts can be deemed worthy of beheading. Other cases that may not have attracted as much international attention have joined Raif Badawi’s name in the headlines. At the European Parliament ceremony last month, some of those other names were brought up by Martin Schulz, the President of the Parliament: specifically, Waleed Abu Al-Khair, Abdulkarim Al-Khodr, Ashraf Fayadh and Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr.

Waleed Abu Al-Khair is Raif Badawi’s lawyer and his brother-in-law. He 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 himself; he won last year’s Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize and his lawyer spoke at the prize ceremony. (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 and she was detained for a day two weeks ago by authorities, as I reported here.)

Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr is one of several young Saudis who were arrested at protests, found guilty of crimes that include terrorism, and sentenced to die by beheading and have their bodies crucified. Rumors and reports have regularly emerged that the executions had been approved, then pardons discussed. As many of you know, Ali’s uncle, Sheikh Nimr, was beheaded on January 1, 2016, and his family was denied his remains for burial.

Each of these individuals languishes in prison and awaits the day he learns the time, place, and manner of his fate. A split in the Saudi judicial system’s personality seems to be coming clear, from an outsider’s perspective, as it negotiates for itself a way between an unreasoning hard-line, anti-humanitarian, stance and joining the international community. One of those paths appears to be the easier one to take for the hard-liners, and the other appears to be the easier one to take. Neither side has King Salman’s undivided attention.

* * * *
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.

* * * *
Saudi Arabia is a theocracy that has religion, one particular religion over all others, serving as its legal and judicial spine. A major offense in that system is “insulting” that religion.

I do not name the particular religion in my posts about this story because it is not the religion itself that is the issue—Islam is a major faith and it teaches love as each religion teaches love as the highest ideal—the problem comes when a government decides to become a theocracy and then decides that a free-thinking citizen represents a threat to either those holding power or those holding religious power, and that it must squash that freedom of thought. That it must punish thought itself. That it must shed the blood of thinkers.

Every nation that has been a theocracy at any point in its history possesses this bloodshed in its past. Every one. Thus, the specific religion that is at the heart of this particular story is not the issue, nor is religion itself, for that matter. The abuse of and executions of citizens by the state for possessing independent thoughts and for sharing them, that is the issue. As Raif Badawi put it, and I will again quote: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”

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

 January 9, 2016: One Year After He Was Flogged, Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
 December 16: Badawi’s Absence Is a Presence at Prize Ceremony
 December 11: A Cloud of Uncertainty
 October 29: Winner of the Sakharov Prize
 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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