Raif Badawi: Our Right to Free Speech must not be taken lightly

Here in North America we take our Right to Freedom of Speech for granted. We criticize our government with abandon and gusto, confident we are safe from retaliation; that there is no price to be paid for speaking our mind. We forget the rest of the world doesn’t take so kindly to criticism.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, criticizing the government comes at a very high cost. In Saudi Arabia it is a crime to speak about things the government disapproves.

Blogger Raif Badawi learned that lesson the hard way. Convicted of crimes against the state, specifically for operating a blog and discussion forum that ridiculed Saudi Arabia’s religious police, Badawi was arrested in 2012 and put on trial.

His conviction was automatic and never in question.

His penalty? One thousand lashes with a bamboo cane and ten years in prison. No, that’s not a misprint. Ten thousand lashes with a bamboo cane, to be delivered 50 per week for 20 consecutive weeks.

I cannot imagine being flogged with a cane 50 times, let alone 50 times a week for the next 20 weeks in a row. Just kill me and get it over with!

Just after Friday prayers on 9 January, Raif Badawi was led by Saudi officials out of a bus and into the middle of the square in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah. A large crowd had gathered to see the flogging.

Raif stood in the middle of the crowd, handcuffed and shackled by his ankles, his face uncovered. A security officer approached Raif and began caning him across the back and legs, until he had been beaten 50 times. A witness told us it took just five minutes to cane Raif 50 times; the lashes were constant and quick.

I can only commend Raif Badawi for his incredible courage. He took his first 50 canings silently, determined not to give his abusers the satisfaction of hearing him cry out in pain.

I can only pray that in similar circumstances I would have that same courage.

Raif raised his head towards the sky, closing his eyes and arching his back. He was silent, but you could tell from his face and his body that he was in real pain.’

The public outcry around the world at the brutality of the sentence actually forced the Saudi administration to backpedal, even if only temporarily, from implementing the rest of the sentence.

Doctors examined Badawi after the first flogging of 50 lashes and determined he has not healed enough to take a second 50 lashes even after two weeks of postponed canings; that to flog him again before his would are healed would threaten his life.

While nobody in Canada will be caned repeatedly for speaking their mind that does not mean we are without our faults. The now-repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act was used to silence individuals, often with crushing monetary penalties even though the Act was supposedly “remedial” in nature, not punitive.

Marc Lemire’s 10-year fight to preserve his right to freedom of speech, for example, caused Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act to be repealed. Lemire’s refusal to cave in to censorship eventually forced the government to strike Section 13 from the books. The irony of that decision is that even though Lemire beat the censors at their own game he may still lose his rights under that repealed section of law.

Found guilty for publishing a document he did not write and didn’t even know existed on his website until he faced prosecution, Lemire faces a lifetime ban on his freedom of speech should he lose his last court appeal.

Arthur Topham faces prison time for daring to speak his mind on his own website, RadicalPress.com as he faces criminal charges under Canada’s hate crimes legislation contained in Section 318 - 320 of the criminal code.

From the November 6, 2012 National Post story on the charges against Arthur Topham:

Mr. Topham is a miner and is listed as secretary of the Cariboo Mining Association. He also publishes Radical Press, a website that posts materials with conspiracy theory themes such as the “Biological Jew” and the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”

[Editor’s Note: Both books are widely available on the internet free of charge and at such purveyors of hate as Amazon.com and Archive.org.]

The Biological Jew depicts Jews as parasites that suck the blood from their “host” societies while the Protocols is a fraudulent book that purports to describe a conspiracy for worldwide Jewish domination.

In May, Harry Abrams, a B’nai Brith volunteer in Victoria, B.C., and Ottawa lawyer Richard Warman both complained to police about the website. Mr. Warman’s complaint said both the Biological Jew and the Protocols were banned from import into Canada as hate propaganda.

“When you’ve got that kind of just rabid attack against the Jewish community I think it’s incumbent on people to stand up in society,” said Mr. Warman, who regularly files complaints about racist websites.

While Mr. Topham does face the prospect of jail time for speaking his mind he will not be flogged mercilessly with a cane by agents of the state.

Does that mean Canada has no issues when it comes to Freedom of Speech?

Hardly.

Instead of defending our Right to Free Speech all levels of government seem insistent that dissenting voices must be silenced, and at almost any cost.

We must not offend Muslims, Jews, First Nations or practically anyone except white Christian males. On that particular group of faithful it’s “open season” with no end of that particular hypocrisy in sight.

Yes, we still have a very long way to go if our Right to Freedom of Speech is to actually mean something.

Eventually we will strike down the “hate speech” section of the Criminal Code as well, leaving ideas, both good and bad, to the court of public opinion which is precisely where they belong.

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