Medical expert: Repeated floggings of Saudi Arabian blogger may cause long-term damage

Further floggings of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi could cause debilitating long-term physical and mental damage, a medical expert from the charity Freedom from Torture has warned in a report commissioned by Amnesty International. 

Authorities in the Kingdom caused an international outrage earlier this month when Raif Badawi was flogged 50 times for creating and managing an online forum for public debate and “insulting Islam”. Medical experts now say that the suffering he has endured may rise if his full sentence of 1,000 lashes is carried out. 

“Flogging Raif Badawi was an unspeakably cruel and shocking act by the Saudi Arabian authorities. The practice violates the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment under international law and should not be carried out under any circumstances; to do so repeatedly is likely to heighten the torment and suffering, both mental and physical, caused to the victim,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. 

Raif Badawi is at risk of facing a repeated round of flogging this Friday. 

Dr Juliet Cohen, Head of Doctors at Freedom from Torture, said the impact of a second set of lashes is likely to be even worse than the first. 

“The more blows are inflicted on top of one another, the more chance of open wounds being caused. This is important because they are likely to be more painful and at risk of infection, which will cause further pain over a prolonged period as infection delays the wounds’ healing,” she said. 

Dr Juliet Cohen further explained that the shirt Raif Badawi was wearing at the time of his last flogging would not have provided much protection from the force of the blow of the cane. 

“When the cane strikes, the blood is forced from the tissues beneath… Damage to the small blood vessels and individual cells causes leakage of blood and tissue fluid into the skin and underlying tissue, increasing the tension in these areas,” she said. 

Further impact from blows of the cane to these areas can cause the skin to split, particularly on a bony part of the body, so that an open wound appears, she explained. 

In addition to the horrendous physical effects of flogging, victims also endure mental torment as a result of the punishment. 

“Psychologically, flogging may cause feelings of fear, anxiety, humiliation and shame. Anticipation of the next scheduled flogging is likely to cause heightened emotions especially of fear, anxiety and difficulty sleeping… pain and fear together over a prolonged period have a deeply debilitating effect and recovery from such experiences may take considerable time,” said Dr Juliet Cohen. 

Raif Badawi’s last two scheduled floggings – on the two Fridays since his first flogging on 9 January – have been postponed on medical grounds, after doctors declared him unfit to be flogged. 

In Raif Badawi’s case, the involvement of doctors has led to the suspension – at least temporarily – of his punishment. But involving medical professionals in the process is itself of concern as they could be forced to sanction such punishments. This would be contrary to the most fundamental principle guiding the work of physicians: not to inflict harm intentionally. 

Dr Juliet Cohen recommended support for Raif Badawi so that he knows “he is not alone in what he suffers but is being talked about around the world”, as well as support by medical associations, including the World Medical Association, for the doctors who are ordered to examine him, urging them “to consider their patient’s health above all else”. 

Amnesty International has led rallies across the world in recent weeks in support of Raif Badawi, calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him and to quash his conviction.   

“Raif Badawi is a prisoner of conscience, whose only ‘crime’ was to set up a website for public discussion, and the Saudi authorities must end their vicious campaign against him,” said Philip Luther. 

“Flogging is prohibited under international law and carrying out such a cruel and inhuman punishment on a regular basis shames the country.”