news Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 05:30

The News Minute | January 9, 2015 | 7.03 pm IST

Freedom of speech has never seen a more open and brutal attack on it, than the recent terrorist killings of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. And while the world’s people unite in anger against the terrorism and stupidity, another incident , though on a lower scale threatens to fly under the radar.

A Saudi blogger was publically flogged in front of a crowd on charges of insulting Islam. Raif Bidawi had created a website called ‘Free Saudi Liberals’. Post the Arab Spring, the jittery authorities wasted no time to crack down on Bidawi’s attempt at spreading free speech. He was arrested on June 2012 for creating an online forum for public debate , with charges of insulting Islam through electronic channels. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals for his supposed act of blasphemy.The website has since been shut down.

Bidwai was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes, the first of which occurred this Friday after the prayers, outside a mosque in the city of Jeddah. He will be publicly flogged from now on, receiving 50 lashes a week, for 20 weeks straight.Infact, he was originally sentenced in 2013 to 7 years in prison and 600 lashes, but after an appeal, the judge stiffened the punishment.

Human rights activists around the world have condemned this act by the Saudi authorities and made a demand to halt the brutal punishment. Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director for Amnesty International had said, “Flogging and other forms of corporal punishment are prohibited under international law, which prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It is horrifying to think that such a vicious and cruel punishment should be imposed on someone who is guilty of nothing more than daring to create a public forum for discussion and peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression.”

But there seems to be very little hope for Bidawi. His lawyer, human rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was also sentenced in July to 15 years imprisonment and barred from travelling for another 15 years after being found guilty by an anti-terrorism court of “undermining the regime and officials”, “inciting public opinion” and “insulting the judiciary”.

The Saudi authorities have amped up the cruelty in Bidwai’s case, supposedly to make an example for others to see and dissuade any future acts of dissent from the kingdom. Having already gained notoriety for its appalling treatment of women and shocking level of disrespect for basic human rights, this particular example of stifling of the freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia has indeed shamed their authoritarian regime. But they don’t seem to be aware and couldn’t care less. And that is perhaps the saddest sight.

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