A Jeddah criminal court judge has sentenced Saudi Arabian journalist Raif Badawi to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for the crime of “insulting Islam.”
It could have gone worse for Badawi: Had the judge not thrown out the charge of apostasy, he would have received a death sentence.
He’ll probably survive the whipping only because it comes in four sessions with planned hospitalizations in between. He has until Sept. 6 to file an appeal.
Badawi, 30, is the co-founder and editor of the website saudiliberalnetwork.com, which encouraged people to post their thoughts about the role of religion and politics, among other things, in their lives. (No longer, however: The site has been shut down.)
He was arrested on June 17, 2012, and sent to Jeddah’s Buraiman prison. The conviction and sentence were announced two weeks ago.
Since being jailed, Badawi hasn’t seen his wife and three children, who are living in exile in Lebanon.
“He’s extremely depressed at the judgment,” Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, told me in an interview last week. “Based on things the judge was saying in court, Raif really thought he might be released.”
Can any human being survive 600 lashes? I asked Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Saudi Arabian human-rights lawyer who is handling Badawi’s case, to tell me about this particular form of punishment.
“The lash is like a horse whip,” he said during a telephone interview from Jeddah. “You stand with your face to the wall. They lash his back from top to legs. 150 lashes are given at a time. Then he will need to go to the hospital.”
Badawi was given five years for “insulting Islam.” Two more are for insulting both Islam and Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
According to the global watchdog group Human Rights Watch, a popular cleric, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak, called for Badawi to be charged with apostasy for allegedly saying that “Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists are all equal.”
The judge, Faris al-Harbi, tacked an additional three months onto the sentence, al-Khair told me, for “parental disobedience.” Badawi’s father, he says, went on TV to condemn his son’s statements and the website.
Badawi has repeatedly claimed that he never attacked Islam and that he only sought to provide a forum for open debate. He even convinced al-Harbi of his own faith, which led to the dismissal of the apostasy charge.
Nevertheless, Al-Khair is pessimistic about the prospects for an appeal.
“We don’t believe they will change,” he said. “We hope they will look at the pressure from the outside regarding dialogue among religions.
“To be honest with you,” he continued, “the majority of people here believe he should be punished for being a liberal.”
The lawyer knows something about this: His wife, who is Badawi’s sister, spent seven months in a Saudi prison. Her crime: “Parental disobedience” that included advocating for the right of women to drive.
Al-Khair said that he fears he too will be arrested for his role in the Badawi case.
How is Raif doing since the conviction? I asked.
“He is just afraid,” al-Khair replied. “He said, ‘I just care about my family, that no one will hurt them.’”
Ensaf Haidar spoke to me from Beirut, where she is living with Najwa, 10; Tirad, 9; and Miriam, who is 6. She answered my questions through an interpreter, Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, one of several organizations that has turned a spotlight on free-speech cases in Saudi Arabia.
Coogle called Raif Badawi’s arrest and conviction “part of a much larger crackdown on free speech in Saudi Arabia.”
I asked Ensaf how she thinks her husband is doing. She was slightly more optimistic than al-Khair. “He’s pretty resilient,” she said. “The Saudis would love him to apologize and show him mercy. But he stands by his beliefs. He won’t back down.”
(Jeremy Gerard reports on human-rights issues for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.