Lashes for Freedom [One of the best articles on Raif Badawi that I’ve seen so far]

When I read this article yesterday I was truly impressed. So I thought I should translate it into English to make it available for more people who are concerned about Raif Badawi’s fate.

All rights to this text belong to Regina Spöttl from Amnesty International Germany and the article was first published in German here: https://www.amnesty.de/journal/2015/april/schlaege-fuer-die-freiheit

In Saudi Arabia the blogger Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1000 lashes because he spoke out for liberal reforms. In the kingdom applies an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam as religion of state – who protests against it, has to expect draconian penalties.

Midday was approaching on the 18th Rabi al-Awwal of the year 1436 AH, when guards in uniform brought a young man in chains on the square in front of the Al-Jafali mosque in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. When the faithful had arrived in swarms after the Friday prayer, one of the guards hit with a long whip fifty time the back and the legs of the young man, who endured the torture wordlessly and visibly in pain. After the fiftieth lash the crowd scanned “Allahu Akbar” and dispersed.

What on the first glance appears like a medieval torture scene, didn’t take place many centuries ago, but in the 21st century. Because the 18th Rabi al-Awwal 1436 describes a date of the Islamic moon calendar and equals the 9th of January 2015.

The young man who was beaten up publically in front of the mosque is called Raif Badawi and is 31 years old. He has a wife and three children who live in exile in Canada and who haven’t seen their husband and father for three years. Raif Badawi was sentenced on 7th of May 2014 by a Criminal Court to ten years of prison, 1000 lashes, a fine of converted 195’000 euros and a subsequent travel ban of ten years. Over a period of twenty weeks he shall be flogged with 50 lashes always after the Friday prayer.

His crime: He had founded the online forum “Free Saudi Liberals”, a website with a blog, on which he exchanged his ideas about a more modern, more human, more tolerant Saudi Arabia with other courageous people.

Topics like politics, human rights, freedom of expression and religion, culture and the separation of religion and state as key to more freedom were discussed there. He thought the time is ripe for urgently needed reforms for a more liberal kingdom. As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas”, Raif Badawi wrote in his blog which now is shut down, “you will find hundreds of fatwas (Islamic legal opinions) that accuse him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.”

He even took another step forwards when he said: “The separation of state and religion is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world into the first world.” Every human being should have the right to choose freely his religion. Badawi sees religion as the personal spiritual relation between the individual and its creator and says that secular right like for example traffic rules and labour law cannot be deduced from religion.

In Saudi Arabia, according to Raif Badawi, the government claims the monopoly on the only and commonly valid truth. Liberalism is considered as basic evil, all people who belong to other religions are viewed as infidels and apostates. “But how can we have this attitude and have normal relations to the six billion people on this world of which four and a half billion are no Muslims?”

With that Raif Badawi has shaken at the to the very foundations of the autocratic Saudi Arabian state, which since the conquest of the Arab Peninsula and the first state foundation by Mohammed Ibn al-Saud in the 18th century is based on two columns: the royal house of the al-Saud and the “Council of the highest scholars of religion” (Ulama), which leads back to the religious founder Mohammed Abd al-Wahab.

Both balance out each other in this power structure. As long as the royal house maintains the strict ultraconservative form of the Wahabite Islam – which most of the time is only achievable by suppression – and as long as the Quran is the constitution of the country and the Sharia the unchallenged law, as long as that the clergy will not question the monarchy of the al-Saud.

Reciprocally the Ulama supports the royal house, for example by legitimating unpopular prohibitions with often absurd justifications and by defaming and obstructing science and research. Like that women who drive a car allegedly risk to become infertile and to lose their virginity.

In September 2011 Saudi clerics seriously claimed that there are Sharia astronomers whose knowledge about the universe are the only true and right ones. According to that a short time ago a lecturer declared in a course that the Earth doesn’t rotate but stands still. Who dares to criticise the clergy will be tried of “Defamation of Islam” and condemned to long sentences. Raif Badawi had among others made fun about the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”, the notorious religious police, and asked for reforms. The consequences are known.

Saudi Arabia is the country with the probably most rigid restrictions of the human right to religious freedom. The Wahabite Islam is religion of state; already the Shiite Muslims who are living mainly in the East of the country are likely called “infidels” and discriminated in daily life. The practise of any other religion is prohibited and is punished. Unlike the other Gulf States in Saudi Arabia you look in vain for Christian churches, synagogues or Hindu temples. Even the possess of a Bible or a Star of David is punishable.

No wonder thus, that Raif Badawi’s call for a secularization of the country made all alarm bells ring and had to be inhibited immediately. This explains also why the operation of a webpage and the writing of a blog were punished in a such draconian way.

Of Raif Badawi an example had to be made, also to show the limits to many users of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Because the cyberspace meanwhile has become a hard nut to crack for the censors, not every website can be controlled, many Facebook posts slide through the tight net of surveillance. “Twitter is our parliament” recently said a young Saudi hopefully.

The wish for reforms, more liberties and openness towards the world is big in the country. The Saudi Arabian women who still need the consent of a male legal guardian if they make an important decision, wish for equal rights and self-determination. And they finally want to drive a car.
But also here the authority strikes out without mercy. Women who are caught at the wheel of a car are put under arrest and can be charged and sentenced under the new antiterrorism law, also to lashes.

Driving a car thus is considered as a terrorist act, nevertheless the women don’t let themselves prevent from doing so any longer. The 21st century has arrived also in Saudi Arabia and the very young society – two thirds of the population are under 25 years old – wants to participate without any obstruction and finally get the many restrictions and bans out of the way.

Government critics and peaceful reformers however are in danger and often pay a high price for courageously advocating for freedom and human rights. For years the Saudi Arabian Government suffocates any criticism of dissidents. Almost all founding member of the human rights organisation ACPRA which now is banned were condemned to prison terms up to ten years. Notable reformers and human rights advocates, among them lawyers, former judges and university professors, are serving long sentences after unfair trials.

In February 2015 an appeal court confirmed the judgement against human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, Raif Badawi’s legal counsel and brother-in-law. He has to go to prison for 15 years because he had founded the human rights organization “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia” in 2008, which documented human rights abuses. Moreover he had defended many human rights activists in court. As many other prisoners, also Waleed Abu al-Khair had been tortured and abused under arrest.

Thus Raif Badawi is not the only nonviolent political prisoner in Saudi Arabia, probably the most known at the moment though. His fate has triggered a wave of indignation and compassion in the whole world. Hundred thousands of signatures so far could have been delivered at demonstrations and vigils in front of the Embassies of Saudi Arabia around the globe. The interest about his case is still overwhelming and the social networks are full with statements of solidarity for Raif Badawi and his family and appeals to the Saudi Arabian government to suspend the remaining 950 lashes and to cancel the verdict. Politicians from all over the world campaign for the blogger.

The good news: Raif Badawi hasn’t had to suffer any further lashes since the 9th of January 2015. The corporal punishment has been suspended temporarily, due to “medical reasons”, as it was stated. His case has been send back from the Supreme Court back to the Criminal Court in Jeddah. The process thus could be reopened, a date for a judicial hearing has not been set yet though.

As long as the verdict hasn’t been cancelled, Raif Badawi still is in highest danger. The cruel scene in front of the Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah could repeat itself at any time on one of the coming Fridays. And not enough with that. At a resumption of the trial at the Criminal Court in Jeddah, Raif Badawi is in danger to be again charged with apostasy for which he might be sentenced to death.

Unless the new Saudi Arabian king Salman pardons Raif Badawi as part of an amnesty to his assumption of office and orders his immediate and unconditional release. Then the dream of Raif’s wife Ensaf Haidar and the three children maybe still could become reality: that they finally can take their husband and father in their arms again at the airport of Montréal.

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