Every Friday morning, a small group of us, sometimes three, sometimes five, hold a vigil outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. We're the most genteel and well-behaved protestors anyone could want, yet the embassy always posts a guard behind the railings, watching and monitoring us.
As they must be watching and monitoring vigils across the world every Friday morning. Because we're not the only ones outraged by a barbaric, medieval sentence on a man who merely used peaceful words.
Five years ago, on 17th June 2012 Raif Badawi was arrested by the Saudi Arabian authorities, for allegedly "insulting Islam through electronic channels". Raif had taken to his keyboard and set up a liberal website. An action which would have gone completely unremarked in this country and many others.
However, Raif was living in Saudi Arabia. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a fine of one million Riyals (£209,330.), a 10-year travel ban, and - barbarically - a thousand lashes! To be inflicted 50 at a time on Fridays, after morning prayers. Causing an international outcry and condemnation.
The first 50 lashes were administered outside a mosque. Ensaf, Raif's wife, who had fled to Canada with their three children, describes the unbearable agony of watching it on video.
'I saw Raif's delicate frame from behind, in the middle of a big crowd of people. He was wearing a white shirt and dark trousers, and his hair hung down to his shoulders. He looked thin. His hands were cuffed in front of his body. I couldn't see his face. The men around him were wearing the usual white gowns and shouting "Allahu Akbar".
'The man himself (the one lashing him) could not be made out in the video. But I saw clearly that he was striking Raif with all his might. Raif's head was bowed. In very quick succession he took the blows all over the back of his body: he was lashed from shoulders to calves, while the men around him clapped and uttered pious phrases. It was too much for me. It's indescribable, watching something like that being done to the person you love.'
Apparently, after each batch of lashes, medics check the sentenced person to ensure they've healed sufficiently, to receive the next batch. In Raif's case, the medics declared him unfit for the following week.
The actual sight of this brutal and savage punishment, for a man who had merely exercised his right to free speech, intensified the pressure on the Saudi Arabian authorities. Writers' organisations across the world protested, sent letters and held vigils. Amnesty, Reporters Without Borders, and many other organisations joined forces calling for Raif's release.
17th June 2017 will mark the fifth year of Raif's imprisonment.
It will also mark the birthday of Waleed Abu Al-Khair.
Waleed is also in prison in Saudi Arabia, a lawyer who represented Raif Badawi in court, and who happens to be Raif Badawi's brother-in-law. A man who's spent his life fighting the abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia. It appears the kingdom took its revenge by convicting him on charges including 'striving to overthrow the state and the authority of the King'; 'criticising and insulting the judiciary'; 'assembling international organisations against the Kingdom'; and 'inciting public opinion'. After all Waleed is a man who's won the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize; been awarded the Swiss Freethinker Prize and been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the 4th year Waleed will be spending a birthday in prison.
Supporting Raif isn't just important because he's the victim of an abuse of power and the subject of a savage sentence, but also because freedom of speech can never be taken for granted; it underlies all our freedoms, allows us to choose our own values, confers equality and dignity on us all.
Raif Badawi shouldn't be caged up in a prison, for having set up a website to discuss liberal views. With the ominous threat of 950 lashes hanging over his head, Raif must not be forgotten. The only reason the Saudi Arabian authorities haven't carried out this brutal sentence is because they know people are watching. Our actions may seem small but on a global level, they've constrained the hand of one of the most authoritarian countries in the world.
Ensaf, Raif's wife, has become his voice in the world: '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.'
The title of Raif Badawi's book captures his plight: 1000 Lashes. Because I Say What I Think
17th June may mark the 5th anniversary of his arrest but let's make it the last. Please support Raif's case: https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/saudi-arabia-fifth-anniversary-of-raif-badawis-arrest-approaches/