The Saudi liberal convicted of publishing a blog, Raif Badawi, has been told he will again be flogged 50 times on Friday – the second part of his 1,000-lash sentence, including a 10-year jail term. The US, Britain, and other western governments had all called for the punishment to be dropped, but there has been no sign of any diplomatic action against Riyadh. Amnesty International on Wednesday urged the UK government to challenge Saudi Arabia, which has ignored all protests over the case. Badawi will be given 50 more lashes outside a mosque in his home city of Jeddah unless a Saudi prison doctor determines he is not yet fit to face the punishment owing to injuries sustained last Friday. If nothing changes, he will be flogged every Friday for the next 19 weeks.
Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is now in Canada, has said she fears he may not physically withstand a second round. “Raif told me he is in a lot of pain after his flogging; his health is poor,” she told Amnesty. “I told our children about the news last week so that they would not find out about it from friends at school. It is a huge shock for them. International pressure is crucial; I believe if we keep up the support, it will eventually pay off.”
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The first floggings attracted huge attention and anger because they followed the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris and intense discussion of the freedom of expression and Muslim sensitivities about portraying the prophet Muhammad. Saudi Arabia publicly condemned the killings of The Info Blog. British ministers “rightly celebrate free speech in Paris or London but suddenly seem to lose their own power of utterance when it comes to forthrightly and publicly condemning the authorities in Riyadh,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK director. “Why do ministers keep wearing the Saudi muzzle? It seriously weakens the UK’s credibility if it’s seen to tone everything down when it comes to oil-rich Saudi Arabia.”
Liberal Saudis have been taken aback by the way the case has been handled. “A lot of people are surprised that this took place immediately after the killings in Paris,” one Saudi analyst told the Guardian. “It’s not good PR for the kingdom. OK, this is not flogging with a cat online tails, but there is a lot of disappointment.
“The theory is that the government is doing this to send a message to hardliners that they are cracking down on everybody, not just religious extremists. But that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. These people are liberals who want stability and progress but reform as well. They love their country. They don’t hide.”
In recent months the authorities have cracked down on extremist Muslim clerics and other supporters of jihadi groups, including the Islamic State (Isis) in Syria and Iraq. The government supports the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad but no longer permits financial support to extremist groups fighting him. Badawi’s sentence stems from creating the website Free Saudi Liberals, now closed, which he envisaged as a forum for political and social debate.
He was subsequently charged over content he posted, including an article in which he was accused of ridiculing the kingdom’s religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – as well as failing to remove “offensive” posts by others. The prosecution originally called him to be tried for “apostasy” or abandoning his religion, which carries the death penalty.
Other lesser-known but more radical figures remain in prison. “Like most Saudi liberals, Badawi thinks that the problem lies in religious controls and the royals are the saviors,” said the London-based Saudi historian Madawi al-Rasheed. ” He cannot see that both religious scholars and royals are a chorus enforcing each other’s interests. With most veteran activists and human rights defenders such as Abdullah al-Hamid and Muhammad al-Qahtani behind bars, the opinions of Badawi are amplified and used to enforce the privileges of conservative constituencies and appease them in Saudi Arabia.”
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Amnesty’s Kate Allen said: “David Cameron and his ministers should have the courage of their convictions and say – loud and clear – that Raif Badawi’s case is an absolute disgrace, that this weekly flogging should be halted and he should be freed from jail. At the very least, the Foreign Office should be calling in the Saudi ambassador and telling him all this in person if they haven’t already done so.”