THE CONTRAST between what Raif Badawi did and the punishment meted out to him on Friday in Saudi Arabia speaks volumes about the kingdom, which remains mired in the thinking of some long-ago epoch. The Saudis are regularly denounced for one of the world’s worst human rights records — and then nothing is done.
Mr. Badawi acted in the spirit of freedom of the modern age. A blogger, he called for open debate about interpretations of Islam. His blog posts were sometimes satirical and sometimes irreverent. They also infuriated the kingdom’s hidebound religious clerics. On Friday in Jiddah, he was given a punishment from a bygone century: 50 lashes, the first of 20 floggings, once a week, to a total of 1,000 lashes for his outspokeness. The word barbaric hardly captures the depth of this depravity.
As we described it last year, Mr. Badawi was arrested in 2008 and questioned about his Web site but released. Then he was charged with setting up a Web site that insults Islam, and he left the country. He returned when prosecutors apparently decided to drop the charges, but in 2009 he was barred from leaving. In 2011 prosecutors alleged that his Web site “infringes on religious values,” and he was arrested in 2012, when a well-known cleric issued a religious ruling that Mr. Badawi was an apostate who must be tried. His Web site was shut down, and his family left Saudi Arabia. A judge threw out the charge of apostasy, which carries the death penalty, after Mr. Badawi assured the court that he is a Muslim. In a subsequent trial he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine equivalent to $266,000.
Mr. Badawi is hardly alone; there are dozens of others being punished for similarly simple deeds. Just last month, it was announced that two women who have been detained for defying a ban on female driving are to be tried in a specialized court for terrorism suspects. Why? According to the BBC, the women both have large followings on Twitter and their cases were transferred to the specialized court because of comments they made on social media. The kingdom effectively prohibits women from driving by refusing to issue them a driver’s license. It also wants to prohibit them from speaking out on Twitter.
The Obama administration briefly on Thursday called on Saudi Arabia to cancel the flogging of Mr. Badawi. On Friday the kingdom ignored the plea and carried out the first of the 50 whippings. So much for strong language from the State Department. It had no impact because it came with no consequences.
However, there are other ways to get results. One would be to create a mechanism to fully expose the situation. Some kind of international commission of inquiry, similar to the one that investigated North Korea, would be a good place to start. It could take testimony and build a record about the kingdom’s repression of dissent and the absence of rights for women. Just the discussion would signal to the Saudi leaders that, despite their storied relationship with the United States, abuses of human rights will not be forgotten, or ignored, as they have been for too long.