In 2012, Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia on charges of “insulting Islam over electronic channels”, after he created the Free Saudi Liberals blog – an online forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently tried for apostasy and for criticizing the ultraconservative religious establishment. Eventually, Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, as well as 1000 lashes, which the Saudi authorities began ruthlessly administering last week Friday. Yesterday, Raif’s flogging was postponed after doctors determined he hadn’t healed from last week’s brutal 50-lash public beating. Badawi’s wife also reports that King Abdullah has now referred Raif’s case to the Saudi Supreme Court, prompting some cautious optimism that the Kingdom may respond to international outrage over the mockery of justice this case has come to represent.
To all who exercise the right to free speech, who believe in freedom of conscience and who recognize the internet as a platform from which citizens can speak truth to power: We are Raif Badawi. If he is a criminal, then we all are. Yet, it is not we who have been beaten while standing shackled before a mob of onlookers under the midday Jeddah sun. Raif endures torture, incarceration and humiliation for a right we all too often take for granted. It is our moral imperative, as writers, as bloggers, as activists and above all else, as fellow human beings, to raise our voices and demand his freedom.
I therefore joined scores of people worldwide, many prompted by Amnesty International, who wrote to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release. My letter, which was also faxed (yes, they do still exist) to a contact number provided by Amnesty, is now creeping up the spine of Africa, trudging along from Johannesburg to Riyadh at the speed of the postal service. It is reproduced below:
His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
Office of His Majesty the King
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Raif Badawi is no criminal. By creating a website to enable debate, he is guilty only of exercising his inalienable right to free speech. Yet he has been arrested, detained and threatened with execution by arms of the state over which you rule as Absolute Monarch. This past Friday, mere days after condemning the attack against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, your state began flogging Mr Badawi in public – a punishment which is tantamount to torture and is deeply incongruent with international human rights law. Is it not hypocrisy to condemn those who attack free speech abroad while brutally suppressing free expression at home?
Mr Badawi has been prosecuted and persecuted on the basis of his beliefs alone and hence is a prisoner of conscience. Liberalism is no crime, regardless of one’s political standing – and is regarded as such only by those so obsessed with control that they seek to dictate the thoughts of the populace. The concept of the thoughtcrime belongs to the domain of totalitarianism. Dissent and debate, as encouraged by Raif Badawi, are necessary components of a free, thinking society and the inability to tolerate it is the hallmark of weak leadership.
Your marginal reforms have been coupled with a vicious crackdown on civil liberties, free speech and fundamental human rights. Mr Badawi’s case exemplifies your state’s wanton disregard for due process and a fair trial, as well as its willingness to use draconian punishments and public execution as instruments of intimidation and control. Seeking the death penalty for apostasy is among the most egregious assaults on freedom of conscience in a world which knows them all too well.
Mr Badawi has denied allegations of apostasy. Notwithstanding his innocence, does not the Quran state that there shall be no compulsion in religion? A theocracy designating apostasy as a crime is akin to a secular dictatorship criminalizing conversion to Islam. One cannot condemn the latter without condemning the former. As a member of the UN’s human rights council, Saudi Arabia is obliged to uphold the fundamental liberties, like freedom of speech and conscience, it so often tramples upon.
I therefore add mine to the cacophony of voices across the globe demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release, as well as the dropping of all charges against him, including those for apostasy. I also urge the Saudi Arabian government to end its use of corporal punishment and cease lashing Mr Badawi in contravention of human rights law.
We will continue to raise our voices until Raif Badawi and other prisoners of conscience like him are free, until beheadings and public executions are filed away into the dark corners of history’s library and until the citizens of all countries have the right to speak truth to power. Jailing Raif Badawi did not weaken his cause – it strengthened it. By persecuting him, your government vindicated criticism of its corruption and brutal authoritarianism.
Amidst the storm of condemnation following last week’s flogging, the message being sent to the Saudi Arabian government, which I shall echo, is clear: the world is watching – and will not stand by in silence while a blogger is tortured and jailed for his beliefs. In order to definitively distance itself from extremism, Saudi Arabia must abandon its bloody, authoritarian version of political Islam which has done nothing but suppress its people and legitimize the extremist brutality of terrorism. It must show a commitment to the values and liberties which the extremists abhor. It must release Raif Badawi.
As the Absolute Monarch, you have the authority to overturn this injustice and return freedom to a man who never deserved to have it taken away. I can only hope that you do.