Monday 10 December 2018

Ireland should take a stand against Saudi hypocrisy over flogged writer

Ensaf Haidar(C), the wife of the Saudi Blogger Raef Badawi, holds a vigil in Montreal, Quebec urging Saudi Arabia to free her husband who was flogged in public January 9, 2015 near a mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, receiving 50 lashes for
Ensaf Haidar(C), the wife of the Saudi Blogger Raef Badawi, holds a vigil in Montreal, Quebec urging Saudi Arabia to free her husband who was flogged in public January 9, 2015 near a mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, receiving 50 lashes for "insulting Islam". Photo: Getty Images
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Just days ago, Enda Kenny stood shoulder to shoulder with other leaders in Paris to champion freedom of expression. Among world representatives at the pro-democracy march was the Saudi ambassador to France, Muhammed Ismail Al-Sheikh.

Two days earlier, Saudia Arabia had flogged a blogger. Fifty blows in public. The first salvo in a barbaric sentence which condemns him to 1,000 lashes. His crime? Expressing ideas through free speech. He set up a website - now closed down - encouraging social debate about religious and political issues.

Even as the Saudi government condemned Islamic fundamentalist violence elsewhere, it was silencing a voice of peaceful dissent at home. And in the most inhumane fashion.

Tomorrow, blogger Raif Badawi is due to receive another 50 blows with a cane outside a mosque in Jeddah. The 31-year-old father-of-three will undergo this ritualised exercise in pain and humiliation for 20 consecutive Fridays. Corporal punishment is defined as torture according to international human rights law. Yet his only crime is to stimulate social debate.

After each flogging he is returned to prison, where he has been held since June 2012. His sentence also includes a 10-year jail term and a fine of €225,000. For good measure, his lawyer was given a lengthy jail term.

Mr Badawi's beating in front of an approving crowd can be seen online via an illegal mobile phone clip. He was shackled, and lashed with a wooden cane across the back and legs. The flogging order specifies he should be lashed severely, and a witness said he suffered visible bruising but was able to walk afterwards.

Imagine the dread this courageous protester must be experiencing, knowing he has to undergo it again - and again and again. Prison is a lonely place. But that crowded square where his beating was cheered with shouts of "God is great" must be lonelier again.

The EU says it is monitoring the situation. That's utterly meaningless when a man is due to be flogged again tomorrow. However, governments are slow to criticise a valuable ally in the Middle East which is also the world's biggest oil exporter. Tut-tutting has no impact on Saudi Arabia because there are no consequences. Here in Ireland, for example, we continue to do business there.

Irish exports to Saudi Arabia in the first 10 months of last year were worth €623m - an increase of €59m on the same period a year earlier, according to the Central Statistics Office. Dairy products are a key part of our exports to the Middle East. Bord Bia has opened an office in Dubai to grow exports in the region.

However, Irish people care about Mr Badawi's fate. When I tweeted about it earlier this week, it was retweeted so often it trended on Twitter. I asked Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan what Ireland was doing for Mr Badawi. It's not as if we lack diplomatic links with Saudi Arabia: it has an embassy in Dublin's Fitzwilliam Square, a stone's throw from Iveagh House.

Here's what the Department of Foreign Affairs told me: "The nature and severity of the penalty in this case is, of course, a cause of concern. Ireland raises human rights issues including specific cases, in conjunction with our EU partners in Saudi Arabia as we do in many other locations. I can confirm that the case of Mr Badawi, and our concerns at his punishment, have been raised in this manner by the EU on behalf of its member states with the Saudi authorities. The EU will continue to closely follow the case of Mr Raif Badawi and to voice our concern through appropriate diplomatic channels." Does this avoid the uncomfortable prospect for Ireland of having to deal directly with Saudi diplomats?

Mr Badawi's punishment is for running a website which "violates Islamic values" and "propagates liberal thought". He was condemned originally to seven years in jail and 600 lashes, until an appeals court increased the severity. His family left Saudi Arabia and are now in Canada.

Saudi Arabia, which does not recognise the right to freedom of expression, has a record of suppressing dissent in the harshest possible way. Opinions are not allowed. The conservative Islamic kingdom follows strict Sunni Muslim rules and applies Sharia law. Judges make decisions based on their own interpretation of religious law rather than a written legal code or precedent.

Ironically, Mr Badawi is fortunate, because he was cleared of apostasy charges which would have meant execution. The evidence against him included that he pressed the 'like' button on a Facebook page for Christian Arabs. Recently, Saudi Arabia announced that two women jailed for driving, which is illegal, would be tried in a special anti-terrorist court. They have large followings on Twitter, and the use of social media appears to be their real crime.

Social media offers an outlet for free speech in a closed society. But journalists and others using it are being tracked and imprisoned.

Last year, a website administrator was convicted of hosting internet forums hostile to the state and which promoted demonstrations. He was given a six-year sentence. Another Saudi was jailed for five years for publishing a column by a Shi'ite Muslim on his website. There are many such examples in this repressive state which, let us remember, condemns people to public beheadings and amputations as well as floggings.

Yet in 2013, Saudi monarch King Abdullah donated $100m to the United Nation's counter-terrorism centre to "get rid of the forces of hatred, extremism and criminality". A worthy aim. But the Saudis ought to begin at home.

In one of his last blog posts, Mr Badawi wrote: "Whether we like it or not, we, being part of humanity have the same duties that others have as well as the same rights... Let us all live under the roof of human civilisation." This is the voice of a man in a jail cell waiting to be flogged again tomorrow.

The Taoiseach's symbolic appearance at the Paris rally was welcome. But we can all see what the opponents of free speech are doing right now. Silence shames us.

Irish Independent

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