The murder of 12 people at the Parisian satirical magazine, Charlie Hebbo, last week hasshocked and appalled the world. Leaders from many countries have rushed to condemn the attack, including the Saudis. This fits with Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the US-led coalition against ISIS and their continual condemnation of terrorism. However, this stance is inconsistent with their treatment of their own citizens over freedom of expression.
Raif Badawi, the owner of the website ‘Free Saudi Liberals’ which encourages religious and political debate, received his first set of 50 out of a 1000 lashes in public on Friday. He has been punished with flogging, 10 years imprisoned and fined 1 mil Saudi riyals or £175,000 for slandering Islam. As a result the ‘Free Saudi Liberals’ platform has been shut down.
He will receive 50 lashes every week for 20 weeks. Badawi only narrowly escaped the charge of apostasy which could have meant a death sentence. His lawyer has also been imprisoned for 15 years for “undermining the regime”, “inciting public opinion” and “insulting the judiciary”. His imprisonment is part of a warning intended to stifle the spread of free opinions since the 2011 Arab Spring.
The flogging went ahead despite the outcry and criticism of Western democracies and human rights groups (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).This action glaringly violates International Human Rights law . It is important to highlight that Saudi Arabia as a member of the UN is concomitantly obliged to abide by international laws.
Some, including Badawi’s wife who is a self-imposed exile in Montreal, Canada, have accused Saudi Arabia of acting like ISIS due to the incredible intolerance and brutality of this action.
The hypocrisy is thus that Saudi Arabia presents itself as liberal externally but its treatment of its own citizens is completely incompatible with this claim. Its comparison with ISIS echoes this incompatibility. There is a strong commitment to piety and protecting their faith. This double standard has existed without consequences for the Saudi Arabian government – either internally or externally – which explains its shocking persistence. There has been a worldwide struggle to uphold International Human Rights inside of states, as the Saudis are battling to justify their infringments of hallmarks in UN policy such as state sovereignty. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the region and with the current ISIS threat the US cannot afford to anger such an key ally. This underscores that in most instances, diplomatic calculus ultimately over-rides morality.
It is not hard to see how Saudi Arabia justifies this hypocrisy to itself. They view themselves fundamentally differently to ISIS and they appear to have the support of a large portion of their population for a strong stance on religious orthodoxy. However, this does not make it acceptable. There are 950 lashes to go, but will international outcry continue with each set? Or is it just the clear hypocrisy with the Charlie Hebbo attack which led to such international outcry? Will they move on to other human rights abuses as they are occurring worldwide, not simply in Saudi Arabia? The optimist in me wants to believe that the international community will continue to push and achieve drastic reform. But this is not the first, and I doubt will be the last time freedom of expression will be overlooked in Saudi Arabia and other countries.