Earlier today, a court in Abha, Saudi Arabia, announced that it has retracted its November 2015 death sentence for the poet Ashraf Fayadh and exchanged it for a sentence of eight years in prison and 800 lashes with a cane. He must also make a public statement of repentance.
This new sentence appears to switch his conviction from one of apostasy, or renouncing his religion, to one of blasphemy, insulting that religion and its leaders. According to the web site Arabic Literature (in English), the charge of “inappropriate relations with the opposite gender” still stands. These “relations” were photos of Fayadh standing next to women in art galleries at exhibitions he curated. The photos were in his cell phone and on his Instagram account because they were appropriate, not salacious, and not worth noticing. In Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi form of Islam, however, this is inappropriate contact with the opposite gender and worthy of legal remedy.
In the already complicated legal history of Ashraf Fayadh, this new chapter has two sides to it: one, an outrageous death sentence has been lifted, but, two, caning is torture, and his sentence of caning is an official response to his poetry. When a court appoints itself as a literary critic, both the judicial system it is a part of and literature itself are diminished. So while expressions of relief are appropriate, this new sentence—a sentence that we do not know to be the final sentence that Ashraf Fayadh will be given—this sentence “extends the injustice” against the writer, as today’s statement from PEN America read. He was arrested for his words, after all.
Here is some of the story of Ashraf Fayadh’s legal trouble in Saudi Arabia:
Ashraf Fayadh was born to Palestinian parents who were living as refugees in Saudi Arabia when he was born in 1980. Under Saudi law, he is also considered a refugee, so he is, even after 35 years, classified in his country as “stateless.” He has lived most of his life in Saudi Arabia, and he rose to prominence in the burgeoning arts scene there, which is a remarkable thing in and of itself as there are no art schools in the nation and even movie theaters are banned. In 2013, Fayadh was the curator of an event at the 55th Venice Biennale, “RHIZOMA (Generation in Waiting).” He has been a part of an arts collective called “Edge of Arabia,” which has mounted exhibitions around the world, including the United States, over the last three years.
The trouble started with an argument in a cafe in the summer of 2013. Fayadh and another artist started to fight about art. The argument was verbal, loud, but never physical. The rival decided to press charges against Fayadh, claiming that the poet cursed God in public, was promoting atheism in his poetry, and was consorting with women and even publishing photographic evidence. (As I wrote above, his Instagram account has photos of Fayadh in galleries looking at art with other artists, some of whom are women. Those are the photos that were used as evidence of the latter charge.)
At first, the authorities appeared to agree with Fayadh’s description of the argument as a “personal dispute about art,” and he was released on bail. One day later, on January 1, 2014, he was arrested again. One of the charges was that he did not have an I.D., but his I.D. had been confiscated in the first arrest and not restored to him, which is never an indication that good things are about to happen.
He was put on trial in February 2014 and charged with blasphemy and worse, apostasy. In Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist Sharia judicial system, a conviction for the charge of apostasy leads to a sentence of death. It is as serious a charge as one of murder. According to media reports, Fayadh said, “They accused me [of] atheism and spreading some destructive thoughts into society.” His poetry, he said, “is just about me being [a] Palestinian refugee … about cultural and philosophical issues. But the religious extremists explained it as destructive ideas against God.”
Fayadh spoke out in court against the charge of apostasy, attempted to prove that he believes. In any court, in any country, it is difficult to prove a positive when one is charged with a negative. All the court records quote him declaring, “I am repentant to God most high and am innocent of what appeared in my book mentioned in this case.”
The statement was not sufficient. The court found him guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes. He was granted a chance to appeal, but, like many prisoners in Saudi Arabia, he was given no representation. The appeal was tossed out and he was re-tried instead; again, he had no legal representation.
After the second trial, in November 2015, he was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to die. His father suffered a heart attack and died upon learning of the sentence. Like many prisoners, Fayadh has not been the only person punished, his entire family has been punished.
Abha, the city in Saudi Arabia in which Fayadh lived and worked and was arrested, is where the boundaries of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia are being tested. An attempt was made several years ago to open an underground cinema there. As a prominent artist, as a stateless refugee, Ashraf Fayadh’s case suits the nation’s hardliners as an example of what they will do to those who think differently and, worse, express it.
In Saudi Arabia, the fight for freedom of expression is a fight for life.
* * * *
For more than a year, since the essayist Raif Badawi was flogged by Saudi Arabia as punishment for his words, I have read comments online and seen popular news personalities like Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks (a person whom I otherwise consider to be correct more than 90% of the time), describe the video of Badawi’s flogging as unimpressive or appearing to be not particularly violent.
Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and received 20 on January 9, 2015. Ashaf Fayadh now faces 800 lashes and we do not know how or when or how many will be administered. The first set, or all 800, could be administered (such a clinical word) as soon as this coming Friday. All 800 would kill him. Twenty at a time is torture.
Uygur called what he saw in the video of Badawi’s torture a “light spanking.” I do not know if he saw my response to his statement on Twitter earlier this month:
— Mark Aldrich (@Mark_S_Aldrich) January 10, 2016
Raymond Johansen wrote to me today about Fayadh’s sentence of 800 lashes: “People may think that 800 lashes is somehow a penalty that starts at one lash and ends at the last one. It simply does not. It does not end. The effects of torture lasts a life time. The scars on the inside heals slowly, the ones on the inside does not. Torture never ends.”
Johansen knows this first-hand in two different ways. Last August, he allowed himself to be tortured 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 afterwards, and he even expressed confusion as to where he was after it was finished and he was 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 Badawi, 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.
What follows is some of what I wrote after Johansen’s brave act last August, with some updates and emendations:
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. Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced today to receive 800.
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 over the consideration of what it might have felt like. (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 viewing unless you are hardened by the fake violence we see every day in our entertainments; I wish I could make it as heartbreaking for viewers as it must be for his wife, Ensaf Haidar. Perhaps this will: he was sentenced to this caning 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 candidate for U.S. President would have rejected those lines from a speechwriter.) Here is the video:
On YouTube, one comment under the video 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 reads: “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 in the same spot into a bloody, irreparable, mass. Even if the person wielding the cane attempts to avoid repeatedly hitting the same spots more than once, if he is tasked with delivering 50 blows quickly, this is simply 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 did not follow through with the remainder of his sentence. (Followers of this story know that Badawi remains in prison here in 2016, in solitary confinement.)
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, so 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.
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.
The death sentence for Ashraf Fayadh has been retracted and replaced with torture.
* * * *
In January I recorded one of Fayadh’s poems. His volume of poetry, “Instructions Within,” was published in 2008 and was used as evidence against him. The following poem, “A Space in the Void,” is from that collection. Thanks to Arabic Literature (in English) for publishing it in this translation, by Jonathan Wright.
A Space in the Void
Everything has weight.
Your weight is well known to the back walls
because your heavy shadow doesn’t give the asphalt, the paint, or the writings stuck on the windows a chance to appear.
You also have space, significant space,
in the void.
The air is polluted, and the dumpsters are too,
and your soul, too, ever since it got mixed up with carbon.
And your heart, ever since the arteries were blocked
and it refused to grant citizenship
to the blood coming back from your head.
Without your memory, you’d lose much of your weight.
You need to follow a proper diet
to lose more of you.
Make up your mind quickly,
because the earth’s gravity
doesn’t wait long.
Hint: replace the time factor with your name
so that you find the right way to throw the last page
of your diary
right into the rubbish bin.
You consume enough air for two new-born babies
if the screaming was equal,
given that the air molecules around you
carry sound badly, and your throat
A beggar woman of more than fifty displays her dignity in
a rag studded with coins. She prays that you, and that
pretty woman who happens to be walking beside you,
will soon be blessed with a child,
to fill another part of the void
in return for a coin.
The time has come for you to pick up the pace, not sexually,
and for you to change your smelly socks.
A scientific fact: bacteria grow rapidly.
Succumb to sleep.
because the time has come for you to melt, and dissolve,
to take the shape agreed for the alienation into which you’re have been poured.
and go back to your void,
to occupy your usual space
in the You.—Ashraf Fayadh, translated by Jonathan Wright
A recording of me reading “A Space in the Void”:
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