“He was silent, but you could tell from his face and his body that he was in real pain.”
That statement from a witness to the flogging of Saudi activist Raif Badawi tells only part of the story, say those who know the effects of corporal punishment on its victims.
Badawi’s sentence for non-violent dissent — severe even by Saudi standards — was 1,000 lashes, to be administered over 20 weekly sessions. According to a Human Rights Watch account, he “suffered visible bruising as a result of the flogging but was able to walk back to the prison car on his own.”
But Donald Payne, a Toronto psychiatrist and co-ordinator of the international health network for Amnesty International, says Badawi is at physical and emotional risk from the punishment, administered by a security official wielding a cane.
“The most important physical effect is trauma to the skin,” he said. “The blows are usually in a severe form, aimed at creating pain and distress. One issue is if the skin is broken. That means a risk of infection if there is not proper medical care in prison. Even if there is just bruising, it won’t heal in a week before the next flogging, and the skin will be more sensitive and break down more easily the next time.”
Spinal injury is less of a risk unless Badawi is hit repeatedly in the same spot, Payne added. But it is impossible to tell what the ultimate damage will be.
Psychological trauma is an equally severe part of the punishment he said.
“With this kind of torture there is general demoralization and depression and feeling of lack of control. (Badawi’s) wife said that he handled the first blows well and didn’t break down. But this will happen over a period of time, which makes it harder to resist. There could be a point where the reality of the situation can’t be held off any longer. Then he could get into really serious trouble.”
Keeping up the campaign to support Badawi is crucial as he undergoes the punishment, Payne said. “Torture tends to make you feel hopeless. Knowing that people in the outside world are supporting him is important. The more morale-building there is, the better it will be for him.”