Support for Raif Badawi from around the world

In 2015 I started a project for Raif Badawi. I collected over time 100 translations of a phrase of support for him from people all over the world. I wrote about this project already in June 2015 on the website in support of Raif Badawi and also mentioned the project in my earlier post Twitter is great.  To mark the anniversary of his flogging on 9 January 2015 and his 33rd birthday on 13 January, I want to share my post in an amended form also from my blog.

1. What is the background?

In February 2015 @VeraSScott a human rights activists came up with the following phrase of support for Raif Badawi: “We will hold Raif Badawi in our hearts and minds until his family can hold him in their arms”. This phrase proved to be very popular and soon many people were using it on Twitter.

I liked the phrase and thought it would be great, if we have this wonderful phrase of support for Raif not only in English, but in many different languages. Raif Badawi became during the weeks and months after he was flogged the first time an international symbol for the struggle of so many people for human rights and freedom of speech. This international interest in his case and his fate should manifest itself in support for him in languages from all over the world.

Initially I was not sure how many translations I wanted to collect, but then I decided that it really should be translations into 50 languages. Saudi Arabia decided to flog Raif Badawi in January 2015 50 times and they planned to give him 50 lashes each week, we should show him our support in 50 languages – one for each lash he had to endure.

When I published this article initially I had collected 56 languages. After that I continued to collect translations of this phrase. Now I have 100 pictures with translations of this phrase of support.

2. Which languages are represented?

If you look at the list of languages below, you will see an amazing variety of languages.

There are European, African and Asian languages. The seven UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) are represented. You will find translations in the 12 languages which are spoken by most people in the world as their native language (Hindi, Bangla, Portuguese, Italian, German, Japanese in addition to the UN languages). But you can also find languages as Scottish Gaelic and Romansh which are only spoken by a few ten thousand people or languages as Luxembourgish and Maltese which are spoken by some hundred thousand people.

The languages represent different cultures and connected with the different cultures also different religions. However, the support for Raif Badawi and for human rights goes beyond culture and religion.

3. Who translated the phrase?

I got all the translations via Twitter and again the broad range of different people who were willing to help was astonishing. People from Iceland in the North to Australia in the South and from Canada in the West to Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea in the East helped with the translations. I had people from each continent of the earth who helped with this project.

Also the background of the people and their involvement in campaigns for Raif Badawi covered a broad range of different types of involvment. I asked many Amnesty International divisions for translations and a lot of them helped me. I asked the people who tweet a lot for Raif. But I was more surprised that also such people were happy to help who had only signed one petition for him or even people who did not seem to have any prior involvement in campaigns for Raif Badawi. Some of them not only translated the phrase for me, but also used the picture afterwards themselves and asked their followers to take action.

I think this is a moving sign for the global support and global outcry Raif Badawi’s case has attracted.

4. What follows next?

Please continue to use the pictures and the phrase in different languages. Add them to your tweets, share them on Facebook and on Instagram and continue to support Raif Badawi and his family.

You will find below a list of all the languages and also all the pictures. They are roughly in geographical order, starting with Europe. I collected a lot of Indian languages. For the ease of reference, you will find languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent in a separate group. The next group includes all remaining Asian languages and the last group comprises of all African languages.

I think 100 languages is a good number and I decided that I will not actively continue to collect further languages. However, if you speak a language which is not yet represented and think it should be represented, then please tweet me at @CiLuna27 and send me your translation. I am happy to put it in a picture as well.

5. The Languages

a) European Languages

  • English
  • Irish
  • Scottish Gaelic
  • Welsh
  • Portuguese
  • Spanish
  • Catalan
  • Basque
  • Galician
  • French
  • Dutch
  • German
  • Luxembourgish
  • Rumantsch
  • Italian
  • Maltese
  • Greek
  • Albanian
  • Macedonian
  • Bulgarian
  • Romanian
  • Hungarian
  • Serbian
  • Croatian
  • Bosnian
  • Slovene
  • Slovak
  • Czech
  • Polish
  • Icelandic
  • Norwegian
  • Danish
  • Swedish
  • Finnish
  • Estonian
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Belarusian
  • Ukrainian
  • Russian

b) Languages of the Indian Subcontinent

  • Hindi
  • Awadhi
  • Bangla
  • Bhojpuri
  • Chittagonian
  • Gujarati
  • Kannada
  • Malayalam
  • Marathi
  • Marwari
  • Nepali
  • Pahari
  • Punjabi (Gurmukhi)
  • Punjabi (Shahmukhi)
  • Saraiki
  • Arabic Sindhi
  • Devanagari Sindhi
  • Sinhala
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Urdu

c) Other Asian Languages

  • Arabic
  • Hebrew
  • Turkish
  • Kurdish
  • Armenian
  • Georgian
  • Azeri
  • Persian
  • Kazakh
  • Uzbek
  • Pashto
  • Dari
  • Mongolian
  • Chinese
  • Tibetan
  • Vietnamese
  • Thai
  • Indonesian
  • Malaysian
  • Tagalog
  • Visayan
  • Korean
  • Japanese

d) African Languages

  • Afrikaans
  • Chibemba
  • Dholuo
  • Ekegusii
  • Hausa
  • Igbo
  • Kirundi
  • Luhya
  • Ndebele
  • Oromo
  • Shona
  • Somali
  • Swahili
  • Wolof
  • Xhosa
  • Yoruba

 

 

Human Rights Lawyer in Jail – Dr. Mohammed al-Roken, Waleed Abulkhair and Abdolfattah Soltani

On 10 December is Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Human Rights Day was established in 1950. The United Nations and many human rights organisations mark this day with conferences, meetings, cultural events and exhibitions dealing with human rights issues. Also Amnesty International “Write for Rights” campaign is in December around Human Rights Day.

On the occasion of Human Rights Day, I want to highlight the fate of three men whose profession and passion are the defence of human rights. All three are human rights lawyers and all three are currently in prison for their work: Dr. Mohammed al-Roken (UAE), Waleed Abulkhair (Saudi Arabia) and Abdolfattah Soltani (Iran).

1. Dr. Mohammed al-Roken

img_3231Date of birth: 26 November 1962

Country: Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Profession: Academic, former professor of constitutional law, former president of UAE Jurists Association, member of many further legal associations and human rights lawyer. Dr. Al-Roken holds an PhD in Constitutional Law from the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.

Arrest: 17 July 2012, only hours after his son and his son-in law were arrested.

Trial: The trial against Dr. Al-Roken began in March 2013. It was a mass trial against 94 people, therefore it is also know as UAE94. The group of defendants included human rights lawyers, academics, judges, teachers and students. Many belonged to the Reform and Social Guidance Association (Al-Islah) which had called for more democracy in UAE.

There were altogether 14 hearings which took place on various dates between 4 March and 2 July 2013. 86 defendants pleaded non guilty and 8 were tried in absentia.

The trial and the pretrial detention were unfair and affected by several human rights violations, including

  • Rights on arrest: Most detainees were not informed about the reason for their arrest and did not have prompt access to a lawyer.
  • Right to liberty: All defendants were held in solidary confinement at secret places and were denied contact with their family and their lawyers. The family of the defendants were not informed and sometimes did not know their whereabouts for months.
  • Prohibition against torture: Many defendants said that they were tortured to get them to confess “their crimes” and some said that signatures on confessions were forged
  • Right to fair trial: The hearings were not held in public. Several defendants did not have access to defence lawyers. There were only seven defence lawyers in the case and they did not get the evidence in time to prepare appropriately. Dr. Al-Roken handed in a paper on 26 March in which he requested the defendants to be allowed to access the case papers. This application was declined. The defendants did not have the right to call and examine witnesses.
  • Right to appeal: All defendants were denied the right to appeal the judgement.

Charges: Founding and administrating an institution aimed at overthrowing the government pursuant to Art. 180 Federal Penal Code (UAE)

Sentence: The highest court of the United Arab Emirates sentenced Dr. Al-Roken on 2 July 2013 to a 10 year prison sentence. 55 other defendants were also sentenced to 10 years in prison, 5 others were sentenced to 7 years in prison and the 8 who were tried in absentia were sentenced to 15 years in prison. 25 accused were acquitted.

Background: Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken has acted as a human rights lawyer for individuals but also for organisations like Amnesty International for around two decades. For years he was targeted for his human rights activities. Since 2006 he was arrested and detained several times, his passport was confiscated and he was placed on travel ban. In March 2011 113 UAE citizens signed a petition which asked the government for more democracy in line with the constitutional provisions. The signatories included Dr. Al-Roken and also Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist. In April 2011 Ahmed Mansoor and four other persons were arrested. Dr. Al-Roken served as one of the defence lawyers in this trial (UAE 5) and was also defence lawyer in other important trials.

Current situation: Dr. Al-Roken is in Abu Dhabi’s al-Rezin prison. Amnesty International reports an incident in November 2015 when the prison authorities installed loud speakers in each block and played extremely loud propaganda music for hours. Dr. Al-Roken had a panic attack, high blood pressure and an ear infection. Amnesty International says that his health has now improved. He and other prisoners are still subject to insults and degrading treatment and his family members are harassed. img_1207

Further information: Amnesty International issued on 23 September 2016 an appeal with further information about Dr. Al-Roken and other UAE activists who were tried in the UAE 94 trial. Please read and share this appeal and take action for them. More information about the UAE 94 trial and details about the human rights violations can be found in a report by FIDH, Gulf Centre for Human Rights and other organisations and a report by International Commission of Jurists.

2. Waleed Abulkhair

img_0121Date of birth: 17 June 1979

Country: Saudi Arabia

Profession: Human rights lawyer and human rights activists, head of “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia” (MHRSA), an organisation he founded in 2008.

Arrest: Waleed Abulkhair was arrested on  15 April 2014 when he attended the fifth hearing in his trial. He was taken to al-Ha’ir prison, kept in solitary confinement and deprived of sleep. Waleed said he was beaten and denied food. He also did not have access to his lawyer and his family.

Trial: The trial against Waleed Abulkhair began on 6 October 2013 before the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh which deals with terrorism cases. Waleed Abulkhair did not defend himself because he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court. In February 2014 a new terrorism law came into force. Saudi Arabia applied this new law retroactively to Waleed’s case. The law labels free speech as “terrorism” and its aim is to persecute and punish human rights activists. He was the first human rights activist who was tried and sentenced under this new law.

Charges: There were numerous charges against Waleed Abulkhair, including (1) seeking to disarm the state legitimacy, (2) abuse of public order in the state and its officials, (3) inciting public opinion and insulting the judiciary, (4) publicly defaming the judiciary and discrediting Saudi Arabia through alienating international organizations against the Kingdom and make statements and documents to harm the reputation of the Kingdom to incite and alienate them, (5) adopting an unauthorized association and being its chairman speaking on its behalf and issuing statements and communicating through it and (6) preparing, storing and sending what would prejudice public order.

Sentence: On 6 July 2014 Waleed Abulkhair was sentenced to 15 years in prison (10 years executed and 5 years suspended), a 15-year travel ban starting from the end of his imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (over GBP 35,000). The sentence was upheld in appeal court on 12 January 2015. The judge in the appeal court told Waleed Abukhair that he will serve the full 15 years and not a reduced sentence of 10 years, because he had refused to apologise for the alleged offences.

Background: Waleed Abulkhair has dedicated his life to human rights and their defence. He began to practice law in 2007. He represented many victims of human rights violations and reformers. He advocated for democracy and reforms in Saudi Arabia. In 2009 the authorities banned him from representing certain defendants. Waleed did not obey and continued to defend human rights activists in court. One of the people he represented was Raif Badawi. Waleed Abulkhair was arrested several times and banned from travelling since March 2012 to prevent him from attending to human rights conferences or receiving international human rights prizes. While the trial in Riyadh was ongoing another criminal court in Jeddah sentenced Waleed to three months in prison for similar charges (29 October 2013). Part of the evidence in both trials was a petition Waleed Abulkhair signed in support of 16 Saudi reformists. He wrote over 300 articles in Arabic, he also wrote articles for Western newspapers and received several prizes. img_2411

Current situation: Waleed Abulkhair was transferred several times and was in different prisons. He is currently in prison in Jeddah (Dhahban). On 7 June 2016 Waleed started a hunger strike to protest against harassment, denial of reading material, ongoing ill-treatment and a refusal to provide him with medical care. On 12 June 2016 he ended his hunger strike after gaining concessions from the prison administration.

Further information: You can find more information about him on a blog in his support. Also the Wikipedia article about him is very detailed. The United Nations (UN) Working Group for Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted in their session in September 2015 an opinion in which they request the release of Waleed Abulkhair and eight other human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained in Saudi Arabia.

3. Abdolfattah Soltani

img_3200Date of birth: 2 November 1953

Country: Iran

Profession: Human rights lawyer and spokesman of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. He is also co-founder of this group together with Mohammed Seifzahdeh und Nobel Peach Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. He was a member of the Arbitrary Detention Investigation Committee.

Arrest: On 10 September 2011 security forces entered his offices and confiscated files, his briefcase, his computer and also several personal and family documents. Abdolfattah Soltani was arrested at the Revolutionary Court where he was to review the files of one of his clients.

Trial: The trial against Abdolfattah Soltani started on 8 January 2012 at Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. On 1 January 2012 he was allowed to see his file the first time for 3 hours per day. Abdolfattah Soltani did not defend himself, because he did not belief the court to be qualified. The rights of Abdolfattah Soltani were violated in several ways, in particular through an illegal extension of his imprisonment (after the pre-trail detention expired). He was not released on bail until the court of appeal issued his final ruling, even so he should have been released. He did not have access to records or law books and could not properly prepare his defence. In addition personal items which were confiscated at his arrest were not returned. His family were not allowed to visit him.

Charges: There were four charges against Abdolfattah Soltani: “propagating against the regime” (in particular interviews with media about his client’s cases), “establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (founding an illegal group)”, “assembly and collusion against national security” and “accepting an unlawful prize”. The “unlawful prize” was the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award which he received in 2009.

Sentence: On 4 March 2012, Branch 26 of Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Abdolfattah Soltani to 18 years in Borazjan prison and a 20-year ban on his legal practice.

  • 10 years for founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center
  • 5 years for gathering and colluding with intent to harm the national security
  • 2 years for accepting an illegal award
  • 1 year for spreading propaganda against the system.

In June 2012 an appeal court reduced his prison sentence to 13 years.

Background: Abdolfattah Soltani has been a human rights lawyer for many years and represented many political and human rights activists and their families as well as Nationalist-Religous figures and Iranian union activists. In 2005 he represented the family of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi who was allegedly tortured and murdered in Evin Prison in 2003. In the context of this trial Soltani criticised the fairness of the trial brought by Kazami’s family. Two days later, his house and office was searched and on 30 July 2005 he was arrested for espionage charges. In prison he was kept incommunicado. On 6 March 2006 Abdolfattah Soltani was released on bail.

During the unrest after the disputed president elections in 2009, Soltani and many other political figures, human rights activists and journalists were arrested – without an arrest warrant. He was arrested on 16 June 2009 and on 26 August 2009 after 72 days released on bail secured by property deeds. During this time his access to his family was limited; he was in solitary confinement for 17 days and lost 15 pounds in prison.

After his arrest in 2011, the Iranian conservative politician, Chief Justice of Iran and Iran’s highest human rights official Mohammad Javad Larijani made false allegations against Abdolfattah Soltani and claimed he was “connected with a  terrorist group” even so there were no such charges against him.

Current situation: Even so the judgement stated that Abdolfattah Soltani should serve his sentence in Borazjan prison which his almost 1,000 km from Tehran, he was not transferred to Borazjan. He has served his sentence up to now in Evin prison in Tehran. He spent several months in solitary confinement in the Intelligence Ministry’s Ward 209 in Evin prison. He went on hunger strikes to protest against inadequate health care and prison conditions. Abdolfattah Soltani has several health problems, in particular heart problems. The authorities prevented hospitalisation and treatments several times. He was also refused necessary medication. So far he was given once furlough on medical grounds on 17 January 2016 and had to return to prison before he had fully recovered. On all other occasions furlough was denied. On 17 May 2016 he was granted temporary leave on compassionate grounds, because his mother had passed away on the same days a few img_3201hours earlier. It was only the second time that he was granted furlough. He had applied for it several times to spend time with his dying mother, but the authorities delayed their decision until it was too late.

In addition also his family is harassed and was denied the right to visit him in prison on several occasions. His daughter stated in November 2016 that there are currently serious concerns about his health. She hopes that he will be released soon, because he has served half of his sentence and therefore qualifies for conditional release. So far none of their requests was answered.

Further Information: There is detailed article about Abdolfattah Soltani on Tavaana homepage. Also the homepage of the City of Nuremberg which gave him in 2009 their human rights contains a lot of information. Finally there were a number of articles on the website International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and HRANA (Human Rights Activists News Agency) which are worth reading.

Forbidden Poetry: The Poems

In the previous post “Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami” I gave you some background information about the three poets and their punishments. In this post, I want to share examples of their poetry in English translation and give links to further poems in English translation.

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

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The Name of a Masculine Dream

While you excel in worshipping anxiety –
didn’t you notice that your arteries have failed to pump your insomnia up to the eyes?
Didn’t you notice?
That the hearts of those abandoned on the pavements of the night
have split from your vision so many times?
The patterns of the night continue their work
until dawn appears on the edges of clouds gathering
on the ceiling of your imagination.
Didn’t you also notice –
how you enjoy interpreting the arteries of women
and the bodies tossed on the roofs of memories from long ago?

Your pages have been soaked with the sludge of exegesis
and not one word has been read
like you
these pages have exhausted all languages known to earth
in order to offer a name that matches your definition of self
your name – like an inkwell pregnant with possibilities
your build defies all definitions of its organs combined.

Come stand to where the thunder can see you so that your emaciated body may dissolve
and your soul be resurrected as a cloud followed by rain
pouring down life to where your name is not even a dream
that won’t come to pass as long as you’re unable to abandon the definitions
of dubious pleasures and drunken nights
and those who call out the sacred names of love.
Come – for the night is long for the beloved,
not long enough to write about pleasure
or bodies saturated in the smell of peaches
absorbed in all the forbidden pleasures of the night.
Come – to where the cloud chooses to shift your sickly form
and snatch your soul from its exile –
from a heart that had openly declared the absence of love
and from the mirages of the assumed homeland you thought you belonged
to every grit of its earth.

Since when does the wind honor traffic laws?
Since when?
Did the wind ever stop at your red light?
How long have you coaxed it to stop
so you could gather a few words
or find some news no longer fit for print?

Your eyes will confess that insomnia
has violated the secrets of the night
and the night too won’t keep silent for long.
Your heart is an idol to which your arteries have absconded
And they no longer offer your veins as sacrifice
as tribute to the throne of beautiful gods

Your name means nothing to me
it cannot deliver me of all the sins of drought
and it cannot supplicate the night so that I can walk free from its isolation
your name is a lost number –
a weight that has broken your back!

The poem “The Name of a Masculine Dream” is from the book “Instructions Within”. It was translated into English by Mona Zaki. It is published here with the consent of M Lynx Qualey, arablit.orga website for Arabic literature in English. This website has many more translations of Ashraf Fayadh’s poems into English, but also into other languages. Please click here for further translations.  M Lynx Qualey also mentioned in a post on 15 February 2016 that Ashraf Fayadh’s “Instructions Within” will soon be published in French and English translation.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

IMG_20141218_105335

I press my head down
It’s the result of insomnia oppressing me
I press my head to you and to my miserable memoirs
The night is pressing me too
But I’m so tough

Now it’s the sound of your scream coming
And there is blood
And there is the smell of tear and tear gas
A soldier is pressing my head down by his boots
Someone is pulling the trigger
Now there is a gun between my eyebrows
I feel the blood pressure in my head
The cowards have run
I press a cold hand in my cold hand

Someone was calling my name all the night
I feel the pressure of a lump in my throat
My throat is wounded
And I hear you screaming in the ear of someone who is all dead
I feel the pressure of life
And its wounds
And its marks
And I feel the pressure of the graves upon the solitude of dead
bodies

I press my fists to the wall and I swallow my cry
You are still screaming in the wild howls of the wind
I press my head down
A vessel is pressing a nerve
And I press a bottom to flash my life back
To go back to a scene where I’m opening a window towards light
Where everybody rise out of the graves
Where I hold a warm hand in my hand
And we are laughing in our homes and in our rooms
There I hear the sound of peace
And my heart beats normally
And that’s a better day with a green background

This poem is taken from a collection of poetry “When a breeze takes a shortcut” which includes poems by Iranian poets and by Radek Hasalik, a Czech poet. I am very grateful to Fatemeh Ekhtesari who allowed me to publish this poem in my blog. If you want to read another of her poems in English have a look at the Versopolis.com website.

3. Mohammed al Ajami (Qatar)

IMG_1607

Tunisian Jasmine

Prime Minister, Mohamed al-Ghannouchi:
If we measured your might
it wouldn’t hold a candle
to a constitution.
We shed no tears for Ben Ali,
nor any for his reign.
It was nothing more than a moment
in time for us,
historical
and dictatorial,
a system of oppression,
an era of autocracy.
Tunisia declared the people’s revolt:
When we lay blame
only the base and vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do so with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people:
their glory had worn away,
the glory of every living soul.
So, rebel, tell them,
tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave:
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.
A warning to the country whose ruler is ignorant,
whose ruler deems that power
comes from the American army.
A warning to the country
whose people starve
while the regime boasts of its prosperity.
A warning to the country whose citizens sleep:
one moment you have your rights,
the next they’re taken from you.
A warning to the system – inherited – of oppression.
How long have all of you been slaves
to one man’s selfish predilections?
How long will the people remain
ignorant of their own strength,
while a despot makes decrees and appointments,
the will of the people all but forgotten?
Why is it that a ruler’s decisions are carried out?
They’ll come back to haunt him
in a country willing
to rid itself of coercion.
Let him know, he
who pleases only himself, and does nothing
but vex his own people; let him know
that tomorrow
someone else will be seated on that throne,
someone who knows the nation’s not his own,
nor the property of his children.
It belongs to the people, and its glories
are the glories of the people.
They gave their reply, and their voice was one,
and their fate, too, was one.
All of us are Tunisia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful, thieves.
This question that keeps you up at night –
its answer won’t be found
on any of the official channels …
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West –
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?

The poem “Tunisian Jasmine” was translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. It is also published here with the consent of M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org. Mohammed Al-Ajami also wrote a “poem from the prison cell” which English PEN published in an English translation for last year’s World Poetry Day. If you want to read it, then please click here.

Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami

It is a dangerous undertaking to write poetry. Each of the three poets about whom I will write in this post will probably agree with this statement. For this year’s World Poetry Day on 21 March 2016, I want to raise awareness for three poets who were punished for their poetry: (1) Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), (2) Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran) and (3) Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar).

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

IMG_2012
English PEN protest for Ashraf Fayadh at the Saudi Arabian Embassy, London

Ashraf Fayadh was born in 1980 in Saudi Arabia. He is a Palestinian poet and artist and a member of the Saudi-British group Edge of Arabia, a non-profit cultural initiative to connect artists and ideas between the Middle East and the Western World. Ashraf Fayadh curated a large art show in Jeddah in 2013 and was co-curator of the project RHIZOMA at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

2013 was not only the year in which he was curator of significant exhibitions. It was also the year in which his ordeal started. On 6 August 2013 he was arrested following the accusation that he was “promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people”. Someone filed a complaint with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice about his book “Instructions Within”, a collection of poetry which was published in 2008. He was released on the next day.

Ashraf Fayadh gave in an interview more background about the allegations: He said that the context was a personal dispute he had with another artist about contemporary art in a café in Abha, a city in the South-West of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 January 2014 he was rearrested. The exact charges against him were initially unclear, but his long hair was criticised and it was thought that his ideas contradict the values of the Saudi Arabian society. After his arrest he was detained in a police station for 27 days until he was transferred to prison.

His case went on trial in February 2014. The charges which were brought against him were very severe: apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) which carries the mandatory death sentence and in addition a violation of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law by taking and storing photos of women on his phone. Ashraf Fayadh denied the accusations of blasphemy and apostasy and offered a formal apology to the court. In relation to the Anti-Cyber Crime charges he explained that he had only photos of fellow artists on his phone which were taken during the Jeddah art week. The prosecution had three witnesses: the man who had reported his allegedly blasphemous remarks and two officers of the Islamic religious police who had arrested him.

In May 2014 the General Court in Abha sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes (for the charges relating to the imagines of women). He was cleared from the allegation of apostasy, because the court had accepted his apology. Ashraf Fayadh filed an appeal against the judgement, but the court of appeal dismissed it. To make things worse they also indicated that he should still be sentenced for apostasy. The case was then transferred back to the General Court.

The retrial took place in November 2015. On 17 November 2015, the General Court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh to death. This trial was unfair and violated International and Saudi-Arabian laws. Ashraf Fayadh did not have legal representation at court, because he could not mandate a lawyer without his passport which was seized by the police. The judge in the new trial did not even speak with him, but only gave the verdict: death sentence for apostasy.

Ashraf Fayadh’s arrest, trial and sentence were heavily criticised. Immediately after his arrest in January 2014 100 Arab writers and thinkers signed a petition and many others condemned his arrest in the social media.

The public outcry got obviously even louder after he was sentenced to death last November. Amnesty International and 60 other human rights groups and arts groups launched a campaign for him. In addition a large number of authors, artists and actors and also the director of Tate Modern joined the efforts for his release. Since January 2015 English PEN has been regularly protesting at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair. Since 27 November they have also been calling for the release of Ashraf Fayadh. The international literature festival Berlin had called for worldwide readings on 14 January 2016 to highlight his case. This was very successful and readings in support of his case were held in 44 countries.

Ashraf Fayadh filed within 30 days an appeal against the court decision which sentenced him to death. He claimed that there is no legal basis for the judgement, because of a number of formal errors:

  • He was arrested by the Islamic religious police, even so the arrest should have been done by the state prosecutor.
  • The allegations of apostasy were only based on the witness statement of the one person with whom he had the dispute. They were not corroborated by other evidence as required under the laws of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 February 2016 the court of appeal reversed the decision of the General Court. They overturned the death-sentence and replaced it with the following verdict: eight years in prison, 800 lashes (to be carried out on 16 occasions with 50 lashes each time) and public repentance. Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer said that they again filed an appeal against this sentence.

Ashraf Fayadh is currently in prison. Sofar he has not yet been flogged.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

hjFatemeh Ekhtesari was born in 1986. She is an Iranian poet and she is also a midwife. Her poems are often about women. On the one hand she writes poems about the female body with pregnancies, deliveries and abortions. On the other hand the poems are about the world of women including demonstrations and resistance. She also edited a modern poetry magazine.

Fatemeh Ekthesari belongs to the literary movement “Postmodern Ghazal”. Ghazal is a classic poetic form which consists of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Traditionally the theme of ghazals is unconditional superior love. Mehdi Mousavi who is a pre-eminent member of this literary movement explained that “ghazal” has a wider meaning in the term “Postmodern Ghazal”. It stands for all formal styles of classic poetry and is not restricted to the traditional ghazal. Poets who belong to this movement use classic poetic forms, but modernise them and write about contemporary themes in contemporary language.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s first book was published in 2010. She spoke in one article about her approach to deal with censorship. She put dots in her poems for all words which would not get past the authorities. After the book was approved and published, she added the missing words by hand before she sent copies to her friends.

In 2013 Fatemeh Ekhtesari took part in a literary exchange programme with Sweden with the title “A Resistance Movement on My Desk”. Six poets from Iran and six poets from Sweden collaborated in this project and translated together Persian poetry into Swedish. One of the highlights of the programme was the participation at the poetry festival in Stockholm and Gothenborg in September 2013.

On 6 December 2013 Fatemeh Ekthesari (and Mehdi Mousavi) wanted to travel to Turkey for a literary workshop. At the airport they were informed that they were banned from travelling and they were summoned for an interrogation.

Both of them did not go to the interrogation and two days later, on 8 December 2013, they were arrested by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp at their houses. They were transferred to solitary confinement and spent 38 days in the Guards’ Ward 2-A at Evin Prison. Both had to endure psychological pressure and repeated interrogations which finally led to forced confessions. These confessions were the main evidence in the following trial. On 13 January 2014 they were released on bail.

Fatemeh has not only been prosecuted personally, but also her poetry is under attack. One of her books which was published with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was removed from the Tehran Book Fair in May 2015.

On 10 October 2015 the Tehran Revolutionary Court rendered their judgement. Fatemeh Ekhtesari was sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes (and Mehdi Mousavi was sentenced to 9 years in prison and 99 lashes). The charges against her were:

  • Insulting sanctities through her poetry (7 years)
  • Publishing unauthorised content in cyberspace (3 years)
  • Propaganda against the state (1 1/2 years)
  • Kissing (the cheeks) and shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex who was not related (99 lashes).

Her lawyer said that it is not entirely clear which of her poems were deemed to “insult the sacred”. The poems which were mentioned in court did not relate to sanctities. All her books were published with permits issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It is therefore difficult to understand why the censors did not take offense and prohibited the publication in the first place, if some of the poems were really against the law. There is some indictation that she was accused to “insult sanctities” because she was previously in contact with the exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najaif who used her poems for one of his songs. Iran sees in him an apostate. However, he sang the song which was based on her poems some years ago and a long time before the allegation of apostasy were made against him.

The charge of “propaganda against the state” has to be seen in the context with her trips to Sweden for the exchange project. The ruling claims that she cooperated in Sweden with the press and with “spies” and is responsible for “negative propaganda about Iran”.

Her lawyer sees severe violations of due process and a fair trial, because there are some indications that the decision was made before the court hearing.

Several human rights organisations heavily criticised the decision against Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi. On 30 October 2015 PEN America sent a letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The letter is signed by 116 poets and writers and urges him to grant pardon for both poets.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi filed an appeal against the judgement. The appeal is still pending. In January they fled Iran. For security resons they do not disclose in which country they are currently. They mentioned however that they have both applied for political asylum.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari shall have the final word. She explained in an article about a months ago her motivation for leaving Iran:

“Self-censorship was among the reasons I left Iran. I was becoming afraid of writing. I feared that anything I write would be used by IRGC interrogations against me.”

“I used to say I have to be in Iran, I need to be in close contact with my audience. I need to see their problems and feel their pain. But I was forced to leave behind the people that I love, the people for whom I’ve been writing poetry.”

 3.  Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar)

IMG_2009Mohammed al-Ajami was born on 24 December 1975 in Qatar. He is married and has four children. He writes also under the name Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb.

The background of his arrest and his sentence are the following: In 2010 Mohammed al-Ajami recited one of his poems in his house in Cairo (“The Cairo poem”). The recitation was in front of a small private audience. However, one of the audience members made a recording of the performance and posted it without his consent or even his knowledge on YouTube.

On 16 November 2011 Mohammed al-Ajami was summoned to a meeting with state security officials in Doha. When he arrived he was arrested. About two weeks later he was transferred to the central prison. The laws of Qatar allow a pre-trial detention of up to six months, however his detention exceeded the legal maximum and his trial was postponed five times. He was held in solitary confinement for a long time. For several months he did not have access to books, television or writing material. Mohammed al-Ajami’s family and friends were initially not informed about his whereabouts and for months they were not given any right to visit him.

On 29 November 2012 Mohammed al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison. The charges against him were “incitement to overthrow the government” and “criticising the ruling emir.” The charge of “incitement to overthrow the government” could have even lead to the death sentence.

The whole trial was unfair. It was a trial behind closed doors. Al-Ajami was not allowed to defend himself and his lawyer was not allowed to plead or defend his client. His lawyer also says that the evidence was tampered with. The court heard as expert witnesses three “poetry experts” from the ministry of culture and education. They gave almost identical evidence and asserted that the poem insulted the emir and his son. Al-Ajami never denied that he was author of the poem, but always emphasised that he did not intend to insult anyone. In addition the offence of “incitement to overthrow the government” requires a public action. Because of the private nature of the reading this requirement was not fulfilled. During his interrogations Al-Ajami was forced to sign a false confession which stated that the poem was read in public in the presence of the press. In the final hearing in October 2012 Al-Ajami was expelled from court (for being unruly) and was not brought to court when the judgement was handed down.

It is not entirely clear for which poem Mohammed al-Ajami was punished. A lot of people think that the reason for his punishment is not “The Cairo poem”, but rather “Tunisian Jasmine”. In this poem he praises the Tunisian revolution and denounces corruption and oppression by Arab rulers:

All of us are Tunesia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful thieves.”

Excerpt of “Tunisian Jasmine”

If you want to read the whole poem “Tunisian Jasmine”, you find it in the following post. There is also a link to another poem which al-Ajami wrote in prison.

The judgement against Mohammed al-Ajami was heavily criticised by Amnesty International and many other human rights organisations and also in the social media.

Mohammed al-Ajami filed an appeal against the judgement. On 25 February 2013 the court of appeal reduced the sentence to 15 years in prison.

Another appeal to the Court of Cassation was not successful. The Court of Cassation upheld on 20 October 2013 15 year prison sentence. The court made his decision to uphold the decision in less than three hours.

Several human rights organisation continously called for his release and there were readings of poetry in solidarity for Mohammed al-Ajami. On 20 October 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur raised his case and declared that his arrest, detention and sentencing “seem to be solely related to the peaceful exercise of his fundamental human rights”. He added that the charges are “clearly incompatible with international standard, which protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of arts, and the take part in cultural life.” English PEN held a protest in support of al-Ajami on 25 February 2016 and delivered a petition to the Qatari Embassy in London.

After the decision of the Court of Cassation in October 2013 there were no further ways to challenge the judgement. The only hope which was left for Mohammed al-Ajami was a pardon by the Emir.

Two days ago, on 15 March 2016, there was surprising good news reported via social media: Qatar has granted Mohammed al-Ajami a royal pardon and English PEN reported yesterday that he has been released.

I have decided to include him nevertheless in my post as acknowledgment of his suffering and the unfair imprisonment for more than four years. His story and story of every other poet who is punished for their poetry shall be heard and shared.

Please read also the following post in which you find examples of Ashraf Fayadh’s, Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s and Mohammed Al-Ajami’s poetry. 

I want to thank English PEN which allowed me to use the photo of their protest for Ashraf Fayadh and the pictures of Mohammed Al-Ajami in this post and of Ashraf Fayadh in the next post. I also want to thank M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org, who allowed me to use translations of the poems of Ashraf Fayadh and Mohammed Al-Ajami in the next post. Finally I want to thank especially Fatemeh Ekhtesari. She sent me the two photos I used in this and the next post, English translations of some of her poems and was patient enough to answer my questions.

“Raif Badawi in books” – thoughts about two books by and about Raif Badawi

I want to share in this post some thoughts about two books which were published last year: Ensaf Haidar’s book: “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” (“Freedom for Raif Badawi, the love of my life”) and a collection of Raif Badawi’s blog posts “1000 Lashes because I say what I think”. Both are great sources, if you want to know more about Raif Badawi and Ensaf Haidar’s struggle for her husband. 

1. I wrote my last post about Raif Badawi about a year ago. It was published on 24 March 2015 on the Raif Badawi website and you can also find it here in my blog.  I asked myself in it

Why do I think every day of Raif Badawi, even so I do not really know a lot about him?”

I still think about and tweet for Raif Badawi every day, but the basis of information about him has luckily changed. A year ago you could only find one or two of his blog posts in an English translation. In addition the Guardian had published an article with a couple of excerpts of his posts. Also the personal information about him was sparse. There were a number of articles and the information on the Amnesty website, but nothing more comprehensive.

The situation has completely changed, because of the publication of two books since my last post:

a) The first publication was in April 2015. Ullstein Verlag, a German publishing house, published the book “1000 Peitschenhiebe, weil ich sage, was ich denke”. It is a collection of 15 blog posts by Raif Badawi in German translation. During the course of the following months also an English translation of the book followed and now it is available in addition in French, Italian and Dutch. This book enables us to finally read the posts which led to Raif Badawi’s severe punishment.

b) The second book is by Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and was published in October 2015. The book is so far only available in German under the title “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens”, but the English translation will follow in the next days (on 16 March 2016). The book is a biography about Raif Badawi and tells the story of Raif and Ensaf’s love, their live together and her struggle for his freedom and his life.

2. Ensaf Haidar: “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” (Freedom for Raif Badawi, the love of my life)

a) The book “Freiheit für Raif Badawi, die Liebe meines Lebens” starts with a short chapter about Ensaf Haidar’s current life in Sherbrooke, Canada and her involvement in campaigns for Raif. The following chapters tell chronologically their story from their first encounter until the presence.

It was chance that Ensaf Haidar and Raif Badawi got to know each other. Ensaf’s sister Hanan receiRB 2ved a mobile phone as a present for her wedding. However, she thought that she would not really need it as a married woman and passed it on to her younger sister Ensaf. Ensaf was at the end of her Koran studies at university and her sister thought she could use the phone when the driver is late picking her up from university. One evening she saw that someone had tried to reach her. She had registered her number with the job centre because another sister Egbal had urged her to do so. She called back after business hours and expected to leave a message on the answering machine. However this was not the job centre who had tried to reach her, but Raif Badawi whom she did not know. Apparently also one of her brothers had used the phone and Raif Badawi dialed the wrong number. Initially she was very hesitant and did not want to speak with him, because to speak with a man who does not belong to the family is not accepted behaviour in Saudi Arabia and actually even dangerous because they could be punished for it. Raif was very persistent and in the end they spent the whole night on the phone speaking about their favourite music and their lives. It is very poignant to read how they saw each other the first time. On a Friday when her brothers were at the mosque, Ensaf went to their room which had windows to the street. Raif came to the house as arranged and was standing in front of the house looking up to the window to see at least a glimpse of her. Ensaf threw down a carnation which Raif picked up and kept like a treasure.

After this first opportunity to see each other briefly and from afar a period of secrecy and many more calls followed. Two months later they decided that they could only be together, if they got married. Raif spoke with her father and proposed marriage. For her father Raif was not a suitable husband. He did not come from a respectable family and her father outright ignored Raif ‘s proposal. He did not even considered him worthy to receive an answer. It took 18 months for Ensaf to convince her family that they should accept the marriage proposal and it seems they only finally accepted because she threatened to do something forbidden and bring shame over family.

Ensaf Haidar tells about her wedding and their honeymoon in Syria and in Lebanon and how she enjoyed the freedom in these countries. She also tells about their first flat together in her home town Jazan in southern Saudi Arabia. The relationship between the newly-wed couple and her family remained difficult and after their first child Nedschua was born they decided to move to Jeddah to escape the constant interference from her family. Raif started an institute to teach women English and the use of computers. Ensaf Haidar is very open when she tells how lonely she felt in this city in which she did not know anyone and that she was even jealous, because Raif spent so much time in the institute and did not seem to be very interested in her any more. During this time he also started his Internet forum in which he discussed liberal thoughts. He did not speak with Ensaf about it, but she saw one day his computer and decided to sign up for the forum herself under a pseudonym. She even wrote comments to some articles. She was very fascinated by this other side of Raif which she did not know. At the end of the year 2007 after the birth of the third child Miriam the police came the first time and seized his books and computers. This was the first incident in which they realised that the authorities did not like the liberal thoughts which were discussed in the forum and much worse should happen. They even thought at that time about leaving Saudi Arabia and stayed for some weeks in Malaysia. None of them spoke Malaysian and everything was more difficult than expected, therefore they went back to Saudi Arabia.

Ensaf Haidar describes in some detail the persecution and harassment by the police which got worse and worse over time. Raif was interrogated by the police and the court and they even froze his accounts and all his assets and withdraw all his citizen rights. One important factor was that Raif Badawi’s father Mohammed Raif Badawi hates his son. He made videos and put them online and later also gave interviews on the Saudi Arabian television in which he claimed that his son had abandoned Islam and was an apostate. Conservative clerics shared this opinion and declared a fatwa against him. Life got more and more difficult and the threats against him and his family got more and more severe. On one evening he was attacked by someone with a knife who tried to kill him. After this assassination attempt they knew that they were not any longer safe in Saudi Arabia. Ensaf Haidar first went with their three children to Egypt, but then decided to go rather to Lebanon because of the uncertain political situation in Egypt. Between Egypt and Lebanon Ensaf and the children went briefly back to Jeddah for one week. This was the last time they saw Raif. They stayed in Lebanon and still  hoped that Raif would be able to follow them soon. Sadly this was not the case because he was not allowed to travel any more and then on 17 June 2012, he was arrested on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, later also apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) was added which carries a mandatory death sentence in Saudi Arabia. Ensaf and Raif realised quickly that the family would also not be safe in Lebanon. Ensaf got calls from unknown persons who threatened her. In addition her family started on her behalf (and against her will) proceedings to get her divorced from Raif Badawi. When she did not agreed to these divorce proceedings, her family disowned her. Ensaf  and Raif decided it would be best, if she applied for political asylum at the United Nations. Finally they got the information that Canada had offered them political asylum. This decision come just in time, because Raif’s father tried to get custody for the three children.

In the last two chapters of the book Ensaf Haidar tells about her journey from Lebanon to Canada and her first impressions of Canada. Again she is very open about her feelings. She is relieved to be in safety and to know that her children are not at risk anymore to be taken from her. On the other hand the culture is very different from anything she knew. They arrived in November and it was winter and much colder than they were used to. But she also speaks about all the people who help her to take care of all formalities and her first contacts with Amnesty International in Sherbrooke. Things were even more difficult, because she hesitated for a long time to tell the children that their father is in prison. She occasionally had a chance to speak with Raif and he urged her not to inform their children about his current situation. Only when the pressure on her got greater and greater and also the newspapers started to report about Raif Badawi’s fate, she could not conceal the truth any longer. She was in a similar dilemma when Raif Badawi was flogged on 9 January 2015. She did not want to tell their children, but had to realise that everyone else knew about it (including all their class mates).

The book finishes in a positive tone. Ensaf Haidar emphasises how grateful she and also Raif are for all the support they receive from people all over the world and all the prices he was awarded. She ends with the hope that King Salman will grant mercy in and will pardon Raif Badawi and she imagines what they would do when they are finally reunited again.

b) I can highly recommend Ensaf Haidar’s book. It gives an interesting insight in her life with Raif and their story. I am particularly impressed how she describes her own development and also Raif Badawi’s development.

At the beginning of the book Ensaf seems to be reasonably happy with her life. She had studied, but she knew that she would probably never work. She was even reluctant whether she should register with the job centre at all. She was looking forward to long holidays where she would live with her family, stay up late and sleep long until her family decided that she should get married and then she would take over the duties of a wife. Her attitude to life changed after she got to know Raif Badawi and fall in love with him. She decided to fight for a future together with him and also finally got the consent to marry him. After her marriage it took time for her to make her own decisions and become more independent. It was for her a gradual process and you get an understanding how this inexperienced girl from the beginning becomes a woman who organises her life and the life of their children and now even speaks with the press, the public and politicians about her husband and leads the campaign for his freedom.

Also Raif Badawi changed a lot over time. He was certainly in love with Ensaf when the first got to know each other and made her many presents, but his idea of a relationship was a rather traditional one. He did not tell anything about his work at home and also made all decisions by himself without even consulting Ensaf. This changed slowly when he starting writing in the forum. Ensaf describes that she read his posts in which he spoke about women’s rights, but that he still behaved at home as always and she did not really see him to put his words into practice. She challenged his behaviour and slowly he really also did change his behaviour, spent more time at home with their children and with her. He also started to discuss his thoughts and his articles with her and was interesting in her ideas.

An other aspect which I found interesting was her remarks about the relationship of the house of Saud and the Wahhabism which goes back almost 300 years to an agreement between Muhammed ibn Saud, the head of the family at that time, and Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. In this agreement Abd al-Wahhab provided the house of Saud with a religious legitimation for their claim to the throne of Saudi Arabia and the Saud family promised to spread and support the extremely conservative ideas of Abd al-Wahhab. That is what they are doing until today and this extreme conservatism is also a reason for Raif Badawi’s medieval punishment.

Finally it was intriguing to read all the background information about Raif Badawi and his father. I knew before that it was a troubled relationship and that the father condoned the punishment of Raif and even asked for the death penalty for Raif, but I was not aware how long back this hostility went. His father beat Raif and his sister and when Raif was 13 he was even sued by his father for disobedience and spent six months in a prison for children. I think this information puts a lot of slander and claims you occasionally read on Twitter in perspective.

3. Raif Badawi: “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think”

The second book is a collection of 15 of Raif Badawi’s blog posts. All posts were chosen by Ensaf Haidar and were originally published between 2010 and 2012. They had to be reconstructed with her help, because it is apparently difficult to find Raif’s posts still online.

RB 1The articles cover a great variety of different topics. There are some articles which focus on Saudi Arabia and its laws and customs. One of these articles is “Let’s Lash Some Astronomers”. Islamic scholars claim that the view of astronomers about the earth and the universe are not compatible with the Sharia view of the world and argue that astronomers are therefore heretics. Raif Badawi praises sarcastically the “Sharia  Astronomy” and suggests that the USA abolish NASA. He recommends also scientists in other fields to stop their studies and learn from the “glorious preachers” in Saudi Arabia who always have the final word in everything. Other articles like “A Male Escort for Every Female Scholar”, “Mixed or Divided” and “The Book” all deal with the role of women in Saudi Arabia. In each of these articles Raif Badawi argues passionately for equal rights for women and men. I thought it was particularly interesting to read his arguments in “The Book”. The article is about the International Book Fair in Riyadh. For the first time it was open for men and women at the same time without segregation. Raif Badawi applauds this decision and also argues that the mixing of genders is not forbidden under Islamic law. He explains further that historical documents show that also at the time of the prophet Mohammed men and woman worked, prayed and lived side by side. I find it remarkable that he does not seem to criticise in such articles Islam as such, but rather the – from his perspective – wrong interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Another group of articles are about specific themes and topics which go beyond Saudi Arabia. Interesting are “No to Building a Mosque in New York City” and  “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts”. In the first article “No to Building a Mosque in New York City” he criticises the intention of the New York Muslims who wanted to build a mosque on the area where the World Trade Centre stood. He tries to put himself in the shoes of an “ordinary American” and argues that Saudi Arabia would certainly not build a church or synagogue, if a Christian or Jewish person had attacked Saudi Arabia. He then continues to explain that Saudi Arabia refuses to build churches altogether. He uses this example to call for freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia and more religious tolerance from Muslims and sees this as a prerequisite for a positive relationship with everyone irrespective of the religion.

To respect the opinions of those who stand against you is nothing short of courageous. We need to be champions in accepting the beliefs of others and their right to make their own decisions and believe in their own religions“.

(Raif Badawi)

Also the article “Yes! I Will Fight Theists and Religious Thoughts” is remarkable. It starts with the statement that he would be the first person to fight against Hamas, if they would ever “liberate Palestine” and “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”.  He clarifies that he is against the Israeli occupation but at the same time declares that  he is also against an Islamic religious state which might replace Israel in such a scenario. He uses this article to argue against any state which is based on religion and emphasises instead the importance of the individual and of individualism.

There are also general article about freedom of speech and liberalism. In “Let’s Talk about Enlightenment” and “Is Liberalism Against Religion?” Raif Badawi defends and champions liberalism. He strongly advocates a free society in which all ideas, believe systems and philosphies are in competition with each other. He also defends liberalism against the critisism that liberalism is against religion. Raif Badawi argues that one element of liberalism is to provide indidual freedom including freedom of religion. In a liberal society religion is a personal choice which everyone can make, but no one is forced to make.

Liberalism means to simply live and let live. We should all acknowledge our respect for traditions and personal behaviour of others, as long as they don’t cross the line for others and invade their personal space … your freedom ends on the outskirts of the freedom of others.

In summary also Raif Badawi’s book “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I think” is definitely worth reading to understand Raif’s motivation and his thoughts. In addition to Raif’s 15 articles, there are in the English translation three “prefaces” in the book which are well worth reading. The “foreword” is by Lawrence M. Krauss, the “preface” by Constantin Schreiber and an “introduction” by Raif Badawi himself. He dictated this introduction to Ensaf Haidar in several calls. My only criticism against the book is that it is too short. The book has only about 60 pages and I would definitley love to read far more of Raif’s articles.

4. Finally I would like to provide you with the bibliographic information for both books (in German and English):

Raif Badawi’s book is a non-profit project and all proceeds from the book will be donated to Raif Badawi’s family in aid of their efforts to free Raif. Therefore if you buy the book you will not only get an insight in his thoughts, but also directly support the campaign for his freedom.

 

Twitter is great!

During the past weeks and months a lot of friends were surprised about my current enthusiasm for Twitter. They found it hard to understand why it can be exciting to post and read messages with no apparent addressee which cannot have more than 140 characters.

I want to explain and give some examples in the following post, why I think Twitter is great. I am writing this post in particular for those friends who are puzzled by my excitement.

1. I have had a Twitter account since June 2009, but I did not really use it. I was hardly following anyone and I tweeted or retweeted not more than five tweets in all these years. I started using Twitter earlier this year in February, because I wanted to help and support Raif Badawi. I wrote more about that in my post Why I do care about Raif Badawi.

I signed up for Twitter in 2009, because so many newspaper articles about the Arab Spring mentioned that Twitter was an important means of communication during this time. I thought it was exciting to get first hand information via Twitter. However, I did not really get into it, because I was not sure what I should look for and whom I should follow. I find this an interesting coincidence, because I use Twitter now so heavily for prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders who were active during the Arab Spring or who are in any case from the MENA region (Middle East & Northern Africa) and stand for the ideas and values which played an important role during that movement.

2. During the past weeks and months I told a lot of my friends and colleagues about my current enthusiastic use of Twitter and I got almost always one of the following two reactions: Either people replied that they do not have a Twitter account and also do not really understand it or they replied that they have a Twitter account, but hardly ever use it. I want to explain why I am fascinated by Twitter. I think, it is an easy way to communicate in an informal manner with people all over the world and it is brilliant to spread news very quickly. The following two examples shall illustrate my statement: (a) my collection of translations of a phrase of support for Raif Badawi via Twitter and (b) the tweets by Asma Darwish (@eagertobefree), Hussain Jawad’s wife, over the whole period from his arrest in February 2015 until his (conditional) release on 19 May 2015.

3. A few months ago @VeraSScott who campaigns a lot for Raif Badawi came up with a phrase of support for him. The phrase is: “We will hold Raif Badawi in our hearts and minds until his family can hold him in their arms”. This phrase became very popular and many people used it. I liked it as well and suggested to her that it would be great to have it not only in English, but in many different languages. I collected over the past months translations in almost 60 different languages. I put each translation in a picture of Raif Badawi and his three children and you can find all languages and pictures here.

I got all translations by asking people on Twitter for it. I first asked all those who frequently campaign for Raif Badawi. I got a translation into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, Hindi and Malayalam, but I wanted to have more translations. Therefore I sent tweets to the different Amnesty sections all over the world and to people who used the hashtag #FreeRaif or #RaifBadawi. Very often these were people who had only signed a petition for him. If they were in a country from which I did not have the language, I asked them for a translation. Finally I wanted to have some specific languages and just looked for people who posted in that language or where I found another indication that they might speak the language I wanted to have. The reactions I got to my tweets were great. The vast majority of people I asked for a translation were extremely friendly and helped very quickly.

I asked for example @rlamsfuss for a translation of the phrase into Persian. He told me that he could not translate the phrase, because he did not speak the language well enough. When I explained why I wanted to have the translation, he asked a friend @shary20 whether she could help. She sent me immediately a translation into Persian. Both were so friendly and helpful that I decided to follow them. I saw for which prisoners of conscience they mainly campaign and their kindness is one of the reasons why I campaign now for Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki and Saeed Malekpour as well.

I used the translations during the past months and sent it to several people mainly to raise awareness for Raif Badawi. Again, the reactions were great and I got a lot of positive feedback. I sent a tweet with a picture of the phrase in Maltese to @mmic78. The tweet mentioned the number of days Raif Badawi had spent in prison and asked King Salman for mercy. @mmic78 translated my tweet spontaneously into Maltese and we exchanged a couple of tweets. We now follow each other. He is mainly interested in migration as well as Libya and Malta. He occasionally retweets my Raif Badawi tweets and other human rights tweets and I am happy to retweet his tweets on migration topics.

Without Twitter I would not have had any possibility to get all these translations so easy and I would not have learned about new interesting topics and people I have not been aware of before.

4. On 16 February 2015 the Bahraini Human Rights activist, founder and chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR) Hussain Jawad was arrested in a night raid of his house. He was brought to Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). Over the next days he was tortured by physical and psychological means to get him to sign a confession of crimes he has not committed. He was targeted because of his work as a human rights defender. He was then transferred to Dry Dock prison. Over the next months a number of hearings took place. On 19 May he was finally released, but it is just a conditional release and the trial based on the forced confession will take place in September.

His wife Asma Darwish who is also active in EBOHR tweeted about each step after his arrest until the news about his conditional release. I did not follow these tweets from the very beginning, because I think probably just started following Asma Darwish in March, but I read her earlier tweets later. She tweeted about everything which was significant in relation to her husband – beginning with the arrest, the uncertainty, because she could not reach anyone to inform her about his whereabouts and his well-being, the call in which he spoke only a few words which she could hardly understand and in which he confirmed that he was hurt.  She tweeted about each of her visits in prison (before she left and after she was back), she tweeted about each court hearing – every time with the hope that he would be released and always – apart from the last hearing –  with the disappointment when the court extended the detention again. Between her visits and the hearings she asked people to join tweet storms for her husband or to send photos of support for him. She tweeted the articles which were published about him during this time and tweeted pictures of him, but also of their son and herself. Even so a tweet has only 140 characters you can see all her determination and her love for her husband in these tweets; in some tweets you can sense her anger, her disappointment and also her hope. For me these tweets are a remarkable testimony of that story and I would love use the tweets in a later post to share this story with you.

I do not know any other way how she could have informed people worldwide as quickly and as easy about everything what happened. I think Twitter proved to be in this case an excellent means of communication across borders and irrespective of the difficult circumstances.

5. I could give many more examples how Twitter enabled me to get in contact with people and organisations very easily and how it helped to campaign for human rights causes and made it possible to interest people who campaign for certain prisoners to include others in their tweets as well.

Thanks to Twitter the times are over when it was easy for repressive regimes to keep things hidden and it is no surprise to me that human rights activists like Nabeel Rajab are in prison for their tweets. Countries like Bahrain have long realised what a powerful tool Twitter can be and how difficult it is to control. And thanks to Twitter it is easy for each of us to let prisoners of conscience via their friends and family members know that they are not alone and not forgotten.

Why I do care about Raif Badawi

The following article was published the first time on the Raif Badawi website on 24 March 2015. Here is a link to the article on this website. There is also a German version on that website, in case you are interested. Please look also at this website for petitions and other ways how you can help him.

I read the first time about Raif Badawi in January after he was flogged in Jeddah. I was immediately surprised and shocked by the harshness of the sentence – 10 years in prison, the equivalent of GBP 175,000 and – 1000 lashes. I thought and still think it’s hard to believe that in the 21st century any state would still have the power to lash its citizens.

I signed all petitions I could find, but I was determined to do more. When I read the Amnesty International website “5 ways you can help Raif Badawi”, I decided to start tweeting. I had a Twitter account since 2009, but never used it. This certainly has changed. Over the last weeks I have been tweeting every day – in the meantime more than 10,000 tweets. 90% cover just one subject – Raif Badawi. I have been protesting together with EnglishPen in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy, whenever I can get away from work, and have been writing letters and emails mainly to politicians and governments.

I asked myself over the last days, why this case preoccupies me so much and why I cannot forget it. Why do I think every day of Raif Badawi, even so I do not really know a lot about him?

I assume it is a combination of several factors:

1. The most important factor is the severity of the corporal punishment and the reason why he is punished. To lash someone for any crime is cruel and inhuman, but it is even more appalling, because the “crime” is something we all take for granted every day. Most of us use the internet and social media daily. We are used to say our opinion freely and criticise our countries and governments, if we think it is necessary. This right of free expression is something which is natural for us. It is something we sometimes not even question and something we probably not always treasure enough. To imagine that a young man who did the same as we do has to suffer such a harsh punishment for his actions is horrible.

2. The way the lashes are planned to be administered is another factor. To imagine the public humiliation in addition to the pain is difficult to bear. In addition, the long period of time it will take to give Raif Badawi all 1000 lashes means that considerable mental torment is added to the physical pain. We all are thankful that he is not beaten at the moment, but I assume that he is anxious because of the uncertainty whether they will start again to flog him. This might mean that the mental torment still continues, even if the physical torture has stopped for the time being.
The notion that the Saudi state “cares” for the prisoner and that medics are consulted on the question whether he is able to endure another round of lashes is horrific. It is absurd and outrageous that the wounds which were inflicted by the state have to heal enough to be opened by the state again and again. You almost have the impression that the state is eager to ensure that Raif Badawi will indeed suffer the full set of lashes without dying before he has received the last one.

3. I think also the timing of the start of the flogging contributed to my reaction. The shooting in Paris took place just a few days before the flogging. Saudi Arabia protested together with a large number of other states against this attack on the freedom of expression, even so they punished at the same time a man in the severest way for the exercise of the same universal human right. For me this is a hypocrisy which I find hard to bear. In addition this sentence is virtually the same type of punishments which are inflicted by ISIS. I cannot understand how anyone can condemn ISIS for beheadings and floggings and condone the same behaviour in Saudi Arabia.

4. The last reason is that for me Raif Badawi and his punishment raises a number of questions which go far beyond his person and his fate. It raises the question whether human rights are universal or whether the interpretation and boundaries of human rights differ depending on the cultural and religious background. I firmly believe that human rights are universal and inalienable, but ever so often this is questioned by non Western states. They usually reproach the West for not understanding their culture and their values and for trying to impose on them a purely Western concept of human rights.

At the same time this case asks every one of us and our governments, how we see the relationship of human rights on the one hand and economic and strategic interests on the other hand. Saudi Arabia is a country which many Western states see as an ally and partner for economic and strategic reasons. How far are the Western states prepared to insist on their understanding of human rights and what are the consequences on a larger scale? This is neither the time nor the place to discuss these questions in detail, but I think we all will have to deal with these questions now and also in the future, beyond the fate of Raif Badawi.

I am impressed and amazed by the global reach of the campaigns and protests we currently see in support of Raif Badawi. I hope that we all will not relent in our support, even if it might take longer to free him than we all wish for. I hope that we all continue to protest and campaign until he is released and reunited with his family.

Until then our campaigns and protests hopefully help Raif Badawi and his family to cope better with this terrible situation. I think we already have achieved something, if we help him and let him know that he is not alone in his struggle and not forgotten and that we will not look away, but will stay with him and support him until he is free.