Saudi authorities could resume lashing liberal activist and blogger Raif Badawi on June 12, 2015. On June 7, Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 10 years and 1,000 lashes against him. Badawi, convicted in 2013 for setting up a liberal website and allegedly insulting religious authorities, has no more appeals. Prior to the Supreme Court review Saudi authorities lashed him 50 times on January 9.
On May 29, the Saudi embassy in Brussels sent an official statement about the case by the Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry to members of the European parliament. The statement condemned any “interference in its internal affairs,” saying that “some international parties and media … drifted into an attempt to infringe and attack on the sovereign right of states.”
“Saudi authorities believe they are the ones under attack while Raif Badawi waits to be publicly flogged merely for expressing his peaceful opinions,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “All Saudi efforts to improve the country’s image internationally cannot overcome this ugly message of intolerance.”
The charges against Badawi are based solely on his peaceful exercise of his right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Badawi established his online platform in 2008 to encourage debate on religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have detained Badawi in Jeddah’s Buraiman prison since his arrest on June 17, 2012.
The Jeddah Criminal Court originally convicted Badawi in July 2013 and sentenced him to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. An appeals court in May 2014 increased the punishment to 10 years and 1,000 lashes. The appeals judgment, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, sentenced Badawi to five years and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (US$266,000) for setting up a liberal website, and another five years and 1,000 public lashes for “blasphemous phrases on his Facebook page and disobedience to his father.” The judgment bans Badawi from media work or foreign travel for 10 years after his release.
Under the judgment, authorities are to carry out the lashings in 20 sessions of 50 lashes each in front of the Juffali mosque in central Jeddah, with at least one week between sessions. Saudi activists told Human Rights Watch that lashing is generally carried out with a light wooden cane, and the blows are distributed across the back and legs, which leaves bruising but normally does not break the skin.
International human rights law prohibits judicial verdicts imposing corporal punishment, including lashing, as constituting torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997. The United Nations Committee against Torture, in its 2002 comments on Saudi Arabia’s first and only report to the committee, criticized “[t]he sentencing to, and imposition of, corporal punishments by judicial and administrative authorities, including, in particular, flogging and amputation of limbs, that are not in conformity with the Convention.”
The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression under article 32. The only restrictions allowed are those imposed for “respect for the rights of others, their reputation, or the protection of national security, public order, public health, or public morals.” The UN Human Rights Committee, in its definitive interpretation of freedom of expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has stated that blasphemy laws are in principle “incompatible with the Covenant” and that even permitted restrictions on freedom of expression should not “be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.”
The flogging is the latest in a series of harsh penalties handed down against Saudi human rights activists and peaceful dissidents. Those prosecuted include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Badawi’s lawyer, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in July 2014 solely on account of his peaceful criticism of Saudi human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media. Fadhil al-Manasif faces 14 years in prison on charges stemming largely from his assistance to international journalists covering eastern province protests over the treatment of Shia Muslims in the Sunni-dominated country in 2011-12.
“The cruel and unjust treatment of Badawi is sadly just one piece of a broader crackdown on peaceful dissent in Saudi Arabia,” Stork said.