A young journalist and activist has been in jail since 2012 for the crime of insulting his country’s official religion. Sadly, that sentence can be written about dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers worldwide, but only one writer—one writer that we know about—was publicly flogged this weekend.
This was the very same weekend that government leaders from around the world joined a million-person anti-terrorism march in Paris. The march was the emotional punctuation mark that concluded a sad stretch of days in that city. Days earlier, a group of mass murderers who were deluded into thinking that murder is a religious act massacred the staff of an irreverent humor magazine and killed two police officers, one of whom nominally shared the religion of the killers. The killers and the police officer only shared a religion in name, as the killers believed in murder as an act of faith and the police officer did not.
Raif Badawi is the name of the journalist, and he has been living in a Kafka-esque dreamscape of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy since 2008. In May of last year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes, which are to be meted out in sets of 50 lashes each Friday for 20 weeks. For over a year, his sentence has been publicly changed multiple times between six years and 600 lashes and ten years/1000 lashes while his case bounced between a higher court and a lower court in his country’s legal system.
His country is Saudi Arabia, and as a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of a fellow writer and the freedom of ideas. I have written in the past about things I do not like about my country, its use of capital punishment, for instance, and I vote my conscience on these issues, In another country, I might have been arrested for expressing my views, but it has not happened here.
Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and many other organizations have taken up Badawi’s cause, possibly in part because of its clear-cut blatancy: A man is being publicly flogged because he is a writer and has expressed ideas his government would rather he not.
A brief sketch of his journey so far: In 2008, he set up a website, a blog named “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and he was arrested, questioned, and released. He was then charged with insulting Islam, left the country, was told the charges were being dropped, returned home, and then was blocked from leaving the country again, which is never an indication of good things to come. The web site continued, and he was arrested again in 2012 when a religious leader said that his website “infringes on religious values” and proved that he is an apostate, or one who renounces his religion. Apostasy carries with it a sentence of death, and that legal question—is Raif Badawi an apostate or not?—is what has kept his case bouncing between courts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A lower court declared that it did not have the authority to decide and referred the case to a higher court which decided that the lower court could indeed decide if Badawi is an apostate.
He was cleared of the apostasy charge, which freed the courts to sentence him for the charges he was found guilty of from pretty much the moment he was arrested in 2012: insulting the faith and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” Ten years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a one million riyal fine. And his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair , was arrested and found guilty of setting up a human rights monitor organization, which landed him a 15-year jail sentence.
On Friday, Amnesty International published an in-person account of that day’s flogging:
When the worshipers saw the police van outside the mosque, they knew someone would be flogged today.
They gathered in a circle. Passers-by joined them and the crowd grew. But no one knew why the man brought forward was about to be punished. Is he a killer, they asked? A criminal? Does he not pray?
Raif Badawi had been brought to the square in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah just after midday. There was a huge security presence–not just accompanying Raif but also in the streets and around the mosque. Some roads had also been closed.
Raif was escorted from a bus and placed in the middle of the crowd, guarded by eight or nine officers. He was handcuffed and shackled but his face was not covered – everyone could see his face.
Still shackled, Raif stood up in the middle of the crowd. He was dressed in a pair of trousers and a shirt.
A security officer approached him from behind with a huge cane and started beating him.
Raif raised his head towards the sky, closing his eyes and arching his back. He was silent, but you could tell from his face and his body that he was in real pain.
The officer beat Raif on his back and legs, counting the lashes until they reached 50.
The punishment took about 5 minutes. It was very quick, with no break in between lashes.
When it was over, the crowd shouted, “Allah-hu Akbar! Allah-hu Akbar!”–as if Raif had been purified.
Raif was taken away in the bus, back to prison. The whole scene had lasted less than half an hour.
A brief cellphone video was made public, and it shows that the punishment is almost as much “a ritualized public humiliation as a specifically physical punishment (though it is certainly that),” as Nick Gillespie of Reason put it. The video is brief, and I hesitated to include it because it is disturbing and because if you go to YouTube to view it, people who comment on YouTube videos can be astonishingly disgusting.
The juxtaposition of a nation publicly flogging a prisoner of conscience and that country sending an envoy to Sunday’s anti-terror march was not lost on one journalist, who Tweeted almost two dozen similar examples of irony:
The Washington Post’s editorial page on Saturday pointed out that those who are outraged have limits on what we can do, since:
The Obama administration briefly on Thursday called on Saudi Arabia to cancel the flogging of Mr. Badawi. On Friday the kingdom ignored the plea and carried out the first of the 50 whippings. So much for strong language from the State Department. It had no impact because it came with no consequences.
The editorial suggested an international investigation into Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which sounds as toothless as anything that will never happen would sound.
But that is the reality: The U.S. government raised its voice to slightly above a whisper on behalf of one man (not a U.S. citizen) in a different country’s bureaucracy and … crickets. Which is the same non-response our government would give (and gives) if that country formally and diplomatically complained about anything in our system of jurisprudence here.
All I can do as one person, one writer is this: Share the story and some web sites with readers in the hope that someone else will also use their writing voice, their platform. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that last year some 200 reporters were jailed around the world. Many of these reporters are electronic media writers, also known as bloggers, like you and me.
Amnesty International’s Raif Badawi page.
PEN International’s Press Release about Raif Badawi.
My only hope is that someday Raif Badawi will be able to read the many columns out there like this one and, true to his calling, point out that there are a lot of other reporters around the world who need columns like this one written, marches organized, and petitions circulated about their stories.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 12 asks, “Picture the one person in the world you really wish were reading your blog. Write her or him a letter.”
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