CONCORD, N.H. — Everything Katrina Lantos Swett knows about being her brother’s keeper she learned by example, at the feet of her father, Tom Lantos — a lifelong human rights advocate and the only Holocaust survivor to become a congressman.
Swett, who now carries on her father’s work through the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice in Concord, has gained international attention in recent days for the dramatic challenge she has posed to the government of Saudi Arabia: She is prepared to take a physical beating for a man she’s never met, imprisoned 8,000 miles away.
That man, Raif Badawi, 31, is accused of “insulting Islam” through his writings calling for human rights for all in Saudi Arabia. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes by public flogging.
His fight has become Swett’s fight.
Swett, chairwoman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and six colleagues sent a letter on Jan. 20 to the Saudi government, each offering to take 100 of Badawi’s lashes.
Badawi received the first 50 lashes Jan. 9. The next three consecutive floggings have been postponed for health reasons, according to Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, who has sought asylum in Canada with their three children, Swett said.
“His wife reached out to us to thank us for our initiative. She said her husband wept when he heard what we offered to do. I understand that,” Swett said. “The worst feeling for someone being victimized is the sense that they’ve been forgotten, and left to die in the clutches of something terrible.”
Swett’s willingness to stare down the Saudi government with a personal challenge should perhaps not surprise those who know her, or her father’s legacy as a fierce protector of human rights.
Representative Tom Lantos of California, a Hungarian Jew, was twice imprisoned by Nazis — and twice escaped. He was just 16. Although the rest of his family did not survive, Lantos spent his life traveling the globe as a fearless advocate for others, says his daughter, right up until his death in 2008 from cancer.
“Rarely a week goes by that we don’t get a call from someone with a story of how my dad saved someone’s mother’s life, or a son’s life, how he was the only one who would listen to their story, flying around the world and meeting with foreign ministers to intervene,” Swett said. “He was indefatigable. That’s why we founded the Lantos Foundation, to carry on that legacy of outreach.”
Swett’s own journey is remarkable. She skipped high school and entered college at 14, eventually attending Yale. She earned her doctorate in law at age 21 and joined then-Senator Joe Biden’s judiciary committee staff. She became a Mormon while in college and is married to Richard Swett, a former congressman, with whom she has raised seven children, all while pursuing her own political aspirations. Swett ran twice for Congress and was national co-chairwoman of Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Swett says offering to physically take on Badawi’s punishment was a joint decision among the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s commissioners, who’d “rather share in his victimization than stand by and watch him being cruelly tortured.”
Now they are waiting for the Saudi government to blink.
“No, we haven’t heard anything back from them. But what we have done is created an online petition, takelashes4raif.org, and the responses have truly brought tears to my eyes,” said Swett, reading through some of the e-mails — from a Catholic father of three ready to scrape up money for the trip to Saudi Arabia, and an older woman willing to take five lashes, because that’s all she thinks she can physically bear.
“This petition, it’s a little bit different from the many wonderful efforts out there, in that we are specifically saying: sign this only if you are prepared to take lashes in his place,” said Swett.
“Sometimes in the human rights movement, when there are widespread efforts to utilize social media to amplify voices as a megaphone, you hear criticism of what can degenerate into ‘slacktivism’ — activism for slackers,” Swett said. “Judging from the letters we’ve received, there are a lot of decent people out there who are quite ready and willing to create a huge public nightmare for the Saudi government.”
She explains that despite the words “religious freedom” in the group’s name, the commission is dedicated to a singular mission: defending human rights.
“We work aggressively on behalf of agnostics and atheists who are being persecuted. We will go anywhere people face punishment for professing their humanist beliefs, or for their lack of belief in a deity,” Swett said. “We defend every person’s right to live life according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.”
Part of what fueled the commission’s outrage was the timing of Badawi’s punishment and its juxtaposition to the recent Charlie Hebdo killings, Swett said.
Two days before Badawi received his first 50 lashes, terrorists descended on Paris and shot 12 journalists dead for perceived disrespect to the Prophet Mohammed, through published cartoon depictions. Two days later, 40 world leaders descended on Paris in a show of solidarity, decrying terrorism and defending freedom of expression. Among them: the Saudi ambassador to France.
“That Raif’s flogging took place two days after their ambassador is marching in Paris with other world leaders in the name of freedom of speech, that was the pinnacle of hypocrisy,” Swett said.
“For each of us as original signatories of this letter, we felt very strongly that although the likelihood of the Saudis taking us up on our offer is extremely remote, we all signed with every intention of taking his place. It was a powerful moment of reflection and consideration,” Swett said.
Their gesture is one of many — eight senators have demanded that Saudi Arabia halt the “barbaric” punishment of Badawi, and 18 Nobel laureates called on their peers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to join them in nominating Badawi for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
History, Swett said, has taught her that one person’s fight can lead the way for the rest of the world.
“When we fight for religious freedom or protection from brutal punishment, these are not abstract fights,” she said. “We’re fighting for real men and women suffering real horrors at the hands of brutal and authoritarian forces. We win, one victory at a time.”