One Year Ago: A Public Torture

Raymond Johansen allowed himself to be tortured one year ago today, August 16, 2015, in solidarity with Saudi writer Raif Badawi.

Johansen was hit 50 times by a friend, Tony Clenaghan, with a thin cane, a switch, in Trafalgar Square, where corporal punishments once upon a time were held in public and frequently, but not since the 1830s. Johansen had difficulty walking afterward and even expressed confusion as to where he was upon speaking with a reporter. (Video below.)

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 employ minimizes the severity: “lashes.” In writing about the Saudi Arabian writer Raif Badawi, who was sentenced by Saudi Arabia in 2014 to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison, I have run into the shallow poverty of available analogies. All language is analogy, metaphor, and I have wanted the words to be sufficient to convey the pain of judicial corporal punishment, but they do not. They can not. Raymond Johansen’s action last year pumped life into the analogies, however.

When speaking or writing about Raif Badawi’s caning eighteen months ago, many well-known writers and several prominent television personalities (Cenk Uygur, Bill Maher) remarked that at least in the cellphone video that was posted online at the time, Badawi’s punishment did not look violent. Several called it a “spanking.” It isn’t and it wasn’t and if Saudi Arabia resumes caning Raif Badawi, which is a scary thought that remains a continuous background hum of a possibility, it will not be a “spanking.” Perhaps Raymond Johansen’s act of solidarity helped prove this.

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 citizen lives. (One can think that those individuals who are held in secret prisons by the U.S. for possibly doing anything against U.S. interests are people who either ought to be held or ought to face the justice system, but the matter is always superceded by the fact they are being held secretly and have not been tried.)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, 2015, he was hit 50 times with a cane, and he faces 19 more such sessions with a cane to complete his sentence of 1000 lashes.

Even those sympathetic to Raif Badawi’s plight and outraged by corporal punishment in general have found themselves duped by the seeming absence of ferociousness: when he was caned that sunny day, someone recorded a few moments illegally on a cellphone, and at least one writer, Nick Gillespie, emphasized the “public humiliation” aspect over the possibility of physical pain.

(In Saudi Arabia, sentences of corporal punishment 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, they watch shackled prisoners file out, and then they serve as witnessses to corporal punishments meted out by 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. The punishments range from floggings to hands being cut off to beheadings.)

The day after the video was confirmed to be Raif Badawi being flogged, I shared it on this website in the article linked to. 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; I wish I could make it as heartbreaking for viewers as it must be for his wife. Perhaps this will: he was sentenced to this and 19 more such canings 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 U.S. President would have rejected those lines from a speechwriter.) Here is the video:

On YouTube, one comment 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: “Looks like he is getting a back massage. What kind of flogging is this???”

Ignorance does not anger me; celebrating one’s ignorance infuriates me.

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 welts will then be cut open with further blows into a bloody, irreparable, mass. Even if the person wielding the cane attempts to avoid hitting spots more than once, if he is tasked with delivering 50 blows quickly, this is 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, 2015, when he was whipped, and the authorities have not followed through with the remainder of his sentence. The only official reason given is that he had not recovered from the injuries he received.

Much has happened in the eighteen months since: Badawi was moved to a prison that Saudi Arabia employs for its most famous or heinous prisoners; he has begun to suffer health problems that men in their early 30s do not usually suffer from and he never had, including respiratory distress; his name has become world-famous.

As of today, 33 countries still legally use judicial corporal (physical) 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, which is more fearsome. 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: “Board: #PPI – #PPNO – #FreeAnons #FreeRaif | #IntelGroup | #Anonymous GLOBAL PIRATE ACTIVIST.” He is one of many social media activists working to raise awareness about Raif Badawi and many, many other international prisoners of conscience. He is a front-line activist whose media accounts have been silenced by authorities on several occasions in my acquaintance with him. From my various online encounters with him, including interviews, 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. Thus, he did not volunteer his body for a caning in Trafalgar Square last August lightly. He was not asked to do this by others; instead, 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:

Just before it took place, The two men unfurled a #FreeRaif banner. Cleneghan started to hit Johansen. The first 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 by the officer, but his comments immediately after the caning 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.

A day later he wrote, “Struggling as expected. It will take me some time to recover. But I’m ready to continue to work. Flashbacks and loads of pain. Muscles and tendons and welts.” Despite his black jeans, his legs were covered in welts. 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, including the one I used at the top of this column.

We must remember that caning is torture, that Raif Badawi was officially and legally tortured on January 9 of 2015, that Raif Badawi was tortured by his nation’s government for writing things, and that his nation tortured him because his nation imposes mandatory belief in one sect of one religion as a part of its public polity, which is the very definition of fundamentalism. “Secularism is the solution,” Raif Badawi wrote after he was caned. Yes, it is.

* * * *
This is a re-write and update of a post from one year ago, “Tortured.”

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  1. likethelamp · August 16, 2016

    I have appreciated beyond words your covering of these events. Your humanism, heart and keeping of the light has inspired me since I first heard of this whole awful situation. I felt I found a friend to share it with in your blog even though I am saying nothing. It is still shared pain and hope. Grateful for this post as much as all of them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. lifelessons · August 17, 2016

    Ignorance does not anger me; celebrating one’s ignorance infuriates me.–Exactly. Another well-written and well-informed piece, Mark. Thank you for keeping these painful truths in the public eye.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Insach · August 17, 2016

    I remember reading it last year and even today the idea of people comparing flogging with a back massage is as unfathomable as the whole concept of corporal punishment. Painful!

    Liked by 1 person

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