Religious liberty advocates offer to accept punishment for imprisoned Saudi blogger


Seven religious liberty advocates penned a letter on January 20, calling on the government in Saudi Arabia to put a halt to the punishment of Raif Badawi.  Badawi, a Saudi blogger and freedom of expression activist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after criticizing powerful clerics in his country.  He was also charged a fine equivalent to $266,000.

Those who signed the letter all serve as commissioners of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and each offered in the letter to take 100 of the lashes to which Badawi will be subjected.  The letter was addressed to Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.

The letter’s 7 signatories were Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and vice-chairman of the USCIRF; Mary Ann Glendon, Board Member of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; M. Zuhdi Jasser, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy; Daniel Mark, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University; Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice and Chair of the USCIRF; Hannah Rosenthal, CEO of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation; and Eric Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The letter called for the Saudi government to stop the “grave injustice” of the sentence, and stated that the signatories were “deeply alarmed by the prospect of [Badawi’s] continued and grave suffering.”  It also noted that the virtue of compassion is honored in Islam as well as Christianity, and that therefore they were “united in a sense of obligation to condemn and resist injustice and suffer with its victims.”  This sense of compassion led the signatories to ask to receive 100 of Badawi’s lashes each.

George spoke with the Rover about his initial idea to write this letter.  “[A]s I prayed and reflected on what we might do, it came to me that I, and perhaps others, should offer, if necessary, to bear some portion of Raif Badawi’s suffering,” he said.  “This would have to be an individual decision, not something that we would do in our official capacities as members of USCIRF.”

“Our hope is that the offer to take the lashes will provide the Saudi government with an occasion to reflect on the barbarism of what they are doing,” Mark told the Rover.  “If they are unwilling to lash us as well, why not?  Lashing us would call much unwanted attention to the brutality of what they are doing.”

Badawi was initially arrested in 2012 for insulting clerics on his blog.  In 2013, he was cleared of the charge of apostasy, which would have resulted in a death sentence.  He received the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes on January 9.  His second flogging, scheduled for a week after the first, was postponed for medical reasons.

“In addition to the sheer brutality of the punishment, one reason we were motivated to act was that the lashes are supposed to be dealt in twenty weekly installments,” Mark continued.  “This means that there is still a chance of helping Raif Badawi before this cruelty has been meted out in its entirety, not least because there is a chance it may kill him.”

Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa program, Said Boumedouha, said that the postponement of Badawi’s flogging “expose[s] the utter brutality of this punishment” and “underlines its outrageous inhumanity.”  The United States has also publicly called on Saudi Arabia to rescind the sentence.

George told the Rover that he does not expect the Saudis will honor the signatories’ request to share in Badawi’s sentence.  “Our hope is that the international pressure that we, together with human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, are generating will cause the Saudis to relent and spare Mr. Badawi further mistreatment,” he noted.

“Raif Badawi is being punished for nothing more than exercising freedoms that we in the West hold dear, especially freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” Mark added.  “The fact that he is being punished at all is an outrage, let alone in this horrific way.  So we need to be exceedingly vigilant in these cases to remind the world of how precarious the global situation is for our cherished rights.”

Both George and Mark suggested that perhaps the Saudi Arabian government could rescind Badawi’s sentence under the guise of Saudi King Abdullah’s recent death.

“[T]hey could say that they are honoring the memory of the recently deceased King Abdullah by emulating the mercy of God,” George mentioned.

Mark agreed with this possibility.  “Though it is not especially likely, I also hope that the ascension of the new king in Saudi Arabia could create an opening for a chance of course regarding Raif Badawi’s fate.”

“All human lives are precious. A human life is at stake,” George emphasized.  “Mr. Badawi needs to be returned to his wife and children—their suffering is as great as his. Moreover, the United States as a country and all of us as individuals need to make clear to the world that we stand for basic justice and human rights.”


Alexandra DeSanctis is a junior studying political science and constitutional studies.  Contact her at