Saudis rebuff critics amid calls to free activist

Raif Badawi's family fear resumption of lashings after court upholds sentence for insult to Islam and religious figures.

    Saudis rebuff critics amid calls to free activist
    Badawi set up an online forum in 2012 for exchanging ideas and encouraging dialogue about religion [Getty Images]

    Saudi Arabia's government has rebuffed critics of its judicial system, amid renewed calls by rights groups to release activist Raif Badawi, who many fear could start being publicly lashed again soon.

    According to SPA, Saudi Arabia's official press agency, the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs "has condemned statements by some countries and international organisations regarding the case ... although the judiciary or any official body in the state has not issued any statement regarding his case".

    Timeline: Raif Badawi case

    2012 - Arrested on a range of charges, including insulting Islam through electronic channels. 

    2013 - Convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes.
    2014 - Re-sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
    January 2015 - Receives 50 lashes, the first in a series proposed to be carried out over 20 weeks. Further lashings, however, have so far been suspended.
    June 2015 - Saudi Supreme Court upholds 2014 sentence.

    The statement went on to say that the "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not accept any interference in its jurisdiction or internal affairs by any party".

    It underscores just how sensitive this case has become in an absolute monarchy that rarely comments publicly on the inner workings of its judicial system or the verdicts issued by its courts, no matter how controversial.

    Badawi, whose 2014 court sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes has garnered widespread condemnation, saw the verdict against him upheld this week by the country's Supreme Court.

    His family, who say Badawi was last lashed publicly in January this year, now fear the punishment will most definitely resume.

    "We've been campaigning so much and in so many countries for his release," Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar told Al Jazeera.

    "And we originally had some hope that this pressure on the Saudi government might help get his sentence reduced. But the Saudi court made their final decision and we were shocked."

    Haidar, who along with the couple's three children has been granted asylum in Canada, was deeply concerned her husband's punishment was set to resume on Friday - but later used her husband's Twitter account to announce that the lashings had been postponed.

    Fresh calls for release

    Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are just two of the numerous rights groups who have closely followed the case and are now renewing their calls on the Saudi government to release Badawi.

    Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, told Al Jazeera Badawi "never should have been arrested or tried in the first place," and that "releasing Badawi and other activists is a necessary first step toward improving the country’s human rights record".

    Amnesty International said in a statement: "Each of the remaining 950 lashes the Saudi Arabian authorities plan to inflict upon dissident blogger Raif Badawi will bludgeon freedom of expression and make a mockery of the country’s international human rights obligations."

    Raif Badawi's wife calls for his release

    Badawi first ran afoul of Saudi Arabia's clerical establishment in 2012 after setting up a website called "Free Saudi Liberals", designed to be an online forum for exchanging ideas and encouraging dialogue about religion.

    Badawi, who was found guilty of insulting Islam as well as Saudi religious figures, was given the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes publicly in January in the port city of Jeddah, but he has received no more since.

    When amateur video appearing to show the public punishment surfaced online soon after, outrage towards Saudi Arabia - from both humanitarian groups and foreign governments - began growing.

    According to Amnesty International, the second round of Badawi's flogging was stopped on medical grounds.

    What has remained unclear, however, is why the lashings never resumed.

    Negative publicity

    Numerous activists in Saudi Arabia, all of whom requested their names be withheld for fear of reprisals they may face for speaking to the media, believe the Saudi government stopped the lashings not just due to the ill effects they were taking on Badawi's health, but also because of the extremely negative publicity they were generating for the country.

    "The government now finds itself in a tough position," one activist said.

    "First they have to get their prison medical commission to officially say it is okay to start lashing Raif again - that he can physically take the punishment.

    "But then, they will also have to brace for the wave of criticism they know will come their way again. They don't like all these headlines about Raif Badawi - it is embarrassing for them."

    Another activist said they believe that different factions in the Saudi government may have different agendas when it comes to the case.

    "The more liberal wing of the government would love to see Raif Badawi pardoned and to have this case go away," explained the activist.

    Reforms or reset in Saudi Arabia?

    "But the hardliners in the government want to keep sending a message that speaking out in Saudi Arabia will be dealt with very harshly."

    A number of reform advocates have been tried and jailed in Saudi Arabia in the past two years.

    Rights groups insist that is evidence of a broader crackdown on dissent in the kingdom.

    First jailed and tried in 2012 in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, Badawi was found guilty of insulting Islam as well as violating newly established anti-cybercrime statutes.

    In 2013, he was handed a sentence of 600 lashes and seven years in prison.

    Harsher second verdict

    After Badawi's appeal, the initial sentence was overturned and the case retried.

    The second verdict, though, was harsher than the first: in 2014 Badawi received a sentence of 1,000 lashes, 10 years in jail and a $266,000 fine.

    Among those currently imprisoned is Badawi's attorney and brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair.

    A recipient of numerous human-rights awards, Abulkhair was sentenced to 15 years in prison to be followed by a 15-year travel ban for, among other things, "insulting the leadership of the kingdom".

    The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has called the charges against Abulkhair "trumped up" in relation "to his work as a human rights defender" and is demanding once more that Saudi authorities release both Abulkhair and Badawi.

    "Their imprisonment and the 50 lashes Mr Badawi already has received from his sentence of 1,000 lashes constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and are contrary to international human rights standards," Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF chair, wrote in a letter to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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