On Friday, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabian authorities began carrying out their sentence of 1,000 lashes for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, co-founder of a web site, now banned, called the Liberal Saudi Network. The whipping began with 50 lashes, a process which according to various reports will be repeatedly roughly weekly until all 1,000 lashes have been inflicted — some 50 lashes per week, over the next 20 weeks. That’s just part of his sentence. As Amnesty International summarizes the case:
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi Arabian riyals (about US$266,000) last year for creating an online forum for public debate and accusations that he insulted Islam.
Reporters without Borders, which has been calling for Badawi’s sentence to be overturned, released a statement that his “only crime was to start a public debate about the way Saudi society is evolving.” The BBC, drawing on AFP eye-witness quotes, summarizes the scene of the lashing in Jeddah:
Mr. Badawi arrived at the mosque in a police car and had the charges read out to him in front of a crowd.
He was then made to stand with his back to onlookers and whipped, though he remained silent, the witnesses said.
This first bout of the lashing of Badawi has been greatly overshadowed in the news by the Islamist rampage of terror and slaughter in Paris. But it is also something the free world must reckon with. It is part of the omerta that in so many variations, in so many places, hangs over free speech and open debate about Islam.
Last year, Saudi Arabia won election to a three-year seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council — for the third time since 2006. When the Saudi government filed a Note Verbale with the UN in October, 2013, transmitting the voluntary pledges and commitments that were part of its candidacy, that document included such statements as:
The Islamic sharia, from which Saudi Arabia derives its regulations, stresses the protection of human rights and prohibits the violations thereof.
There are seven pages of this sort of material, with 43 items, culminating in Saudi Arabia’s pledge that it will:
Continue to shoulder its humanitarian responsibility to protect and promote human rights at the national level by enacting legislation and establishing mechanisms that strengthen the institutional framework for human rights, and by adopting best practices in the field of human rights.
Evidently, by these lights, “best practices” include the public whipping every week, for 20 consecutive weeks, of a blogger who tried to exercise what is ever more quaintly known in the West as free speech.
Here’s a video clip of what happened when an NGO gave a brief presentation last year about Badawi’s case to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. You’ll see the Saudi envoy intervene twice, trying to stop the presentation on a “point of order,” and then intervene again to remind the Council that Saudi Arabia was elected to its seat by a large majority of UN member states. In the UN chamber, it all sounds very genteel. Not that everyone at the Human Rights Council approves of Saudi Arabia’s “best practices” — the U.S., Ireland and France all speak up here to allow the NGO presentation to proceed, and there are some experts at the Human Rights Council who have registered their protest. To no avail.
The Saudi government in its candidacy for the Human Rights Council also pledged to cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN’s specialized agencies “with regard to meeting the country’s training needs in the protection of human rights, building national capacity and identifying additional ways of protecting and promoting human rights.”
It’s tempting to wonder what would happen were the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to offer to help the Saudi authorities with their training by inviting them to bring Badawi from Jeddah to the UN’s plush chamber of the Human Rights Council in Geneva for his next weekly public whipping, and there — in front of the assembled worthies and the world cameras — ask them if they really wish to proceed. Not that this will ever happen. Something like that might generate a genuine debate. Or at least help better clarify the situation.