02/26/2015 05:54 EST | Updated 04/28/2015 05:59 EDT

Freedom of Speech and Torture: The Badawi Case


In 2014, 31-year-old Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison, a fine of one million royals (230, 000 euros), and a thousand lashes spread over a twenty week period for insulting Islam. This sentence has created controversy all around the world, as it appears incomprehensible that, nowadays, such a harsh, cruel and inhumane punishment can still be imposed. In the wake of the Paris Charlie Hebdo's killings, Badawi received the first 50 lashes on January 9, 2015 before a large crowd gathered in front of a Jeddah mosque. Further lashings were postponed because of a medical exemption due to Badawi's poor health.

Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer and activist, created the secularist Free Saudi Liberals website. Through this public forum of discussion he promoted secularism, derided the absurdities of the Saudi religious authorities and called for open debate regarding the interpretation of Islam. In 2012, he was arrested for having insulted Islam through electronic channels and having showed disobedience. He was officially charged with "setting up a website that undermines general security," "ridiculing Islamic religious figures," and "going beyond the realm of obedience." He was also brought to court for apostasy, which carried an automatic death penalty, but this charge was fortunately thrown out after Badawi guaranteed that he was of the Muslim faith.

The flogging generated a scale of international protests. Indeed, the international community was outraged by the barbarity of the trial, the sentence and the punishment itself. Amnesty International, which has launched an online petition calling for Badawi's release, characterized him as a prisoner of conscience, "detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression." Moreover, Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization, declared that "the charges against him, based solely to Badawi's involvement in setting up a website for peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures, violate his right to freedom of expression." Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Said Boumedouha also stressed that "The flogging of Raif Badawi is a vicious act of cruelty which is prohibited under international law. By ignoring international calls to cancel the flogging, Saudi Arabia's authorities have demonstrated an abhorrent disregard for the most basic human rights principles."

a) Freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right

The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected by several legal provisions both on national and international levels. For instance, section 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, provides clarifications on what the right of freedom encompasses: "this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

b) Right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Furthermore, under both national and international laws, one should not be subject to torture. Numerous countries have adopted legal provisions to forbid the use of cruel, inhumane, or degrading punishment in any circumstances. Torture is also prohibited under international law. For instance, article 5 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment is also codified in major international and regional human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the American Convention on Human Rights (1978), and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights (1981). Moreover, in 1984, the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As Philip Luther of Amnesty International has noted, "Flogging Raif Badawi was an unspeakably cruel and shocking act by the Saudi Arabian authorities. The practice violates the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment under international law and should not be carried out under any circumstances; to do so repeatedly is likely to heighten the torment and suffering, both mental and physical, caused to the victim."

As long as the court verdict and sentence remain in force, Badawi remains at risk of receiving the rest of his 950 lashings. Badawi's condemnation depicts the worldwide struggle for free speech and demonstrates the lack of enforcement of the international prohibition against torture. One can only hope that the international protests and widespread criticism will force the Saudi Arabian authorities to halt this barbaric punishment and release Badawi.


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