Three Years in Prison for Blogging - Mark Aldrich

Three Years in Prison for Blogging - Mark Aldrich

Today is the third anniversary of Raif Badawi’s arrest and the beginning of his imprisonment in a Saudi Arabian jail. One thousand one hundred and nineteen days since he was taken from his wife, seen in the photo above, and their children. Many protests are planned for today at embassies around the world; English PEN delivered a letter to 10 Downing St. today demanding official help in securing his immediate release. It was accepted but not by PM Cameron.

The immigration minister of Québéc, where his wife and children live, granted him a special immigration certificate a few days ago, which is remarkable and kind and, should he be released, needed. Declaring him welcome will not pry him from prison, and Saudi Arabia has already officially complained about Québécois “meddling,” however.

Raif Badawi’s story has earned more and more media interest in the last week. First, the fears expressed in this space (“A Sense of Injustice“) and elsewhere that the flogging that was suspended in January would be resumed came to naught, even though the supreme court reaffirmed his sentence last week. He was not flogged last Friday. Official reasons were not given, yet official and ominous statements of outrage at the global effort on Raif Badawi’s behalf continued to be released.

Day 1119. After the arrest, after a long trial, he was found guilty of having ideas that his country does not favor, even finds to be a threat. The authorities declared that his website “propagates liberal thought,” and the search for a punishment that it deemed proper took over a year to calculate, time he spent in prison.

His writings include statements like this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear,” so the court system decided to live up to that observation.

The punishment for propagating ideas that Saudi Arabia finds liberal is spine-chilling: a public flogging, an exorbitant fine, many years in jail. The punishment levied at those the state declares outside the official faith is extraordinary: a public beheading. Raif Badawi faced a trial on that charge, faced a trial at the end of which he might have been beheaded.

Specifics such as number of hits with a cane, the duration of the imprisonment, or even the financial penalty are determined by a cruel calculus that only the judges seem to know how to unlock. It took several decisions to settle on Raif Badawi’s specific punishment, which wound up as a one million riyal fine (equal to $266,663 as of today), 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes with a cane in a public square.

Today is no more or less special in this nightmarish story; it is one more checkmark on a calendar, one more anniversary, but this time, this June 17, Raif Badawi and his family are marking it with the help of millions of supporters who are outraged that these phrases: “2015,” “guilty of having ideas,” “flogging as punishment for ideas,” can be combined into one dreadful statement.

Saudi Arabia is a theocracy that has religion, one particular religion over all others, serving as its legal and judicial spine. A major offense in that system is “insulting” that religion.

I do not name the particular religion in my posts about this story because it is not the religion itself that is the issue—Islam is a major faith and it teaches love as each religion teaches love as the highest ideal—the problem comes when a government decides to become a theocracy and then decides that a free-thinking citizen represents a threat to either those holding power or those holding religious power, and that it must squash that freedom of thought. That it must punish thought itself. That it must shed the blood of thinkers.

Every nation that has been a theocracy at any point in its history possesses this bloodshed in its past. Every one. Thus, the specific religion that is at the heart of this particular story is not the issue, nor is religion itself, for that matter. The abuse of and executions of citizens by the state for possessing independent thoughts and for sharing them, that is the issue. As Raif Badawi put it, and I will again quote: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”

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In two different columns, “A Prisoner’s Anniversary,” and “Speak Out for Those Who Can’t,” I described this story as a “love story.” It is.

Love takes many different shapes and travels many different roads. Love of family. Love between two people who believe each to be the other’s everything. Love of truth and of truth-telling, no matter the price.

There are individuals around the world who are in prison cells right now, or are being secretly executed right now, because they told the truth about the power arrangements in their nation and told the world that they live in a country that believes in punishing and sometimes killing those who have revealed these things. Raif Badawi is but one of these stories, and I am ever mindful of this. Raif and the others like him go ahead and write these things anyway at the risk of joining the ranks of the punished, joining the silent brigades of the killed.

This is a love for the truth that I sincerely believe will never be tested in my heart in my lifetime, because of the sheer dumb luck of being born when and where I was born. I have no clue if I will ever have an opportunity to display the matchless courage that Raif Badawi, his powerhouse wife Ensaf Haidar, his brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair, or Waleed’s wife (and Raif’s sister) Samar Badawi display every damn day that Raif spends in jail (as of today, 1119 days) and Waleed spends in jail (more than a year now). Waleed Abulkhair is Raif Badawi’s lawyer and he established a human right commission in Saudi Arabia. He is one more of those many individual brave truth-tellers punished for thought.

Raif and Waleed are in jail; their wives work every day to keep their names in the public square. In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of several hundred social media activists who are working to keep this story alive and in the hearts and minds of those who maybe can affect a change and help free Raif and Waleed and other prisoners of conscience. Ensaf and Samar, or their representatives, have sent thank yous to me online. That was unexpected and unsolicited and very heartening. In this story, I am an activist more than a journalist.

Amnesty International released a letter from Ensaf Haidar today, entitled, “My Family’s Inferno of Unbearable Torture.” It reads in part:

By now, millions of people around the world have come to know my husband Raif Badawi’s name. All of this attention is encouraging, but the reasons why have shocked me to my core.
 
Raif was arrested in our country Saudi Arabia three years ago today just because he expressed his ideas—he took to his keyboard and started his own website.
 
He is a person who loves life and adores freedom, and for this he has received the harshest of sentences. He has been locked up since 2012, serving a 10-year prison sentence, and he has already suffered 50 lashes in public out of an unspeakably cruel 1,000 lashes—too much for any person to bear.
 
Since Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court recently upheld his sentence, with no room for appeal, Raif still has the threat of 19 more flogging sessions hanging over him, despite his poor health. All of this because he expressed himself.
 
After we got married in 2002, our life together was beautiful, careless and free, up until he decided to launch his first Saudi Liberals website several years later.
 
Ever since then, I have always feared for Raif’s safety, for I know quite well that the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia is mighty, fierce and wanton. These fears were realised in 2007, when Raif was officially summoned for the first time by the State Security, and life soon turned harsh for us. Things got increasingly worse after his arrest in 2012 and then his drastic sentence was handed down last year.
 
With the utmost regret, I have to say that the harsh and inhumane sentence issued against Raif last year was meant to send a clear message to all those who might dare stand up against Saudi Arabia’s religious hard-liners; it came as a shock that I still cannot recover from—it has become a sheer inferno of unbearable torture.
 
Raif has always meant everything to me and the kids; he is a father of three angels and a great husband. I can never describe how much we miss him. We have lost almost everything since his imprisonment.
 
The first day Raif was sent to prison I decided that I had two choices: to be weak, give up and hide in a corner weeping, or to stay strong and fight for Raif’s freedom. I am the kind of person who always has high hopes, despite the obstacles.
 
I have been through rough days but my first days in Canada were even rougher; a new language, new people and a new life. I’ve had to bear all of this on top of my thoughts about the long distance between Raif and me, and that I cannot go back to Saudi Arabia. However, in Québéc I have found genuine people who made me wish that Raif and I had moved to live here a long time ago.
 
My life in Canada can be described as perfect and great; the way the Québécois people treat us is more than superb. The government of Québéc and the political opposition have been very supportive; they are all magnificent. The only thing I miss here is having Raif with us.
 
Far beyond Canada, people around the world have been very supportive of me and Raif—in particular due to the efforts of Amnesty International activists, who spared no campaign or activity to help us. All the phrases of the world will not be enough to express my thanks to them for all their efforts to free Raif. They recently organised an excellent tour to bring me and my message to several European countries, where I met with political leaders. The European leaders welcomed me as if I were a politician or diplomat, and such treatment alone prompted me to be optimistic and full of hope. Everyone is trying, and hopefully these efforts will one day bear fruits.
 
I have pleaded and would like to reiterate my plea to His Majesty King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ruler, to pardon Raif and stop his flogging. It is true that I have received no reply but I remain optimistic and will continue pleading until the last moment.—Ensaf Haidar, June 17, 2015

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For another terrific blog post this week on this story, read this piece from Khana’s Web, “In a Crisis: Raif Badawi needs all the help he can get!

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