Why we must help to stop the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi

Despite the crackdown at home, Saudi Arabia is angling to present itself as a supporter of free expression abroad.

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“A vicious act of cruelty.” That was how Amnesty International described the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who is currently serving a ten year prison sentence for “insulting Islam”. His punishment was meted out last Friday, when he was brought, shackled and handcuffed, before a crowd of spectators outside al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah. He was lashed 50 times on his back and legs, as he will be every Friday over the course of 20 weeks, until he has received the full 1000 lashes that his sentence demands.

His “only crime”, according to Amnesty’s deputy Middle East director Said Boumedouha, “was to exercise his right to freedom of expression” by setting up a liberal website to promote public discussion of religion and politics. For the Saudi authorities, however, the threat of online debate is as severe as any protest. As Saudi human rights activist Hala al-Dosari puts it, “they don’t want people to start questioning religion, the legitimacy of the Saudi ruling family or the distribution of wealth” in Saudi society. “Inciting terror in people” is their way of deterring political dissent, she says.

Away from the closed doors of the Saudi Kingdom, however, its rulers like to portray themselves as liberal and tolerant. Just two days after Raif was flogged, the Saudi ambassador to France attended the Charlie Hebdo solidarity rally in Paris, where he paid his respects to those murdered last week for exercising their right to free expression. Yet back in Saudi, the Charlie Hebdo journalists would have undoubtedly received the same – if not, worse – punishment as Raif, again, simply for expressing their opinions.

Unfortunately, Raif is “just the latest victim of Saudi Arabia’s remorseless assault on free expression”, according to Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. Raif’s lawyer Waleed Abulkhair, for example, is currently serving a 15-year jail term for such ‘crimes’ as “inflaming public opinion” and “distorting the Kingdom’s reputation.” 11 members of ACPRA, one of the country’s only independent human rights organisations, are also either in prison or facing prosecution on similar charges – all for their peaceful activism.

In the Eastern Province, where most of the Kingdom’s marginalised Shi’ite minority live, repression has been particularly harsh, with over a dozen protesters killed by security forces since small-scale protests broke out in early 2011. One of the leaders of the protest movement, prominent Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was recently sentenced to death on charges which which included “breaking allegiance with the ruler”, sparking new protests in the governorate of Qatif.

Perhaps most controversially of all, authorities have detained two women, Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, since early December for defying the Kingdom’s ban on women driving. They are currently facing the possibility of trial in the Specialised Criminal Court, which was set up ostensibly to try alleged terrorists, but has instead been used to prosecute human rights activists such as Waleed Abulkhair. Under recent Saudi law, anything from “calling for atheist thought” to “inciting protests” or organizing petitions is now punishable as an act of terrorism.

Despite the crackdown at home, however, Saudi Arabia is angling to present itself as a supporter of free expression abroad. It has also joined the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State, seeking to distance itself from allegations of ties to terrorism and fostering extremism. The west, for its part, considers Saudi Arabia a vital strategic ally; Britain, for example, sells more arms to the Kingdom than it does to any other country in the world.

But the west’s relationship with Saudi Arabia also runs counter to its declared values, such as support for democracy, human rights and free expression. To its credit, the United States did urge the Saudi authorities to cancel Raif’s punishment the day before the flogging, but they were met with deaf ears. Without the threat of serious repercussions for going through with it, this was perhaps inevitable.

Raif will be flogged again, every Friday until his punishment of 1,000 lashes is complete. Saudi Arabia’s allies must do everything they can to halt this public torture, by using the leverage they have with the Kingdom’s rulers and making clear that their public statements on human rights in Saudi Arabia are more than just words.