Eric Schwartz would take 100 lashes if it would spare a Saudi blogger more pain.
The University of Minnesota professor is among seven academics and religious freedom advocates who have put their backs on the line to call attention to the predicament of Raif Badawi, a blogger who was arrested in Saudi Arabia for "insulting Islam through electronic channels."
Badawi was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes, along with a fine and a 10-year prison term. Schwartz and company sent a letter to the Saudi government requesting a pardon for Badawi. If not that, the activists offered to share his punishment — 100 lashes each.
"This is an expression of empathy, of tolerance and of solidarity," said Schwartz, dean of the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Badawi, 31, was arrested in 2012 for posting political content on his website Free Saudi Liberals. The father of three received his first set of 50 lashes in January; he was flogged publicly outside the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah. A second set has been postponed.
While he doesn't believe the Saudi kingdom will accept their offer, Schwartz said their sacrificial gesture really aims to pressure the Saudi government into reconsidering Badawi's sentence.
"Our objectives are narrow. We're trying to get the government to release Badawi, and to stop the unjust abuses carried out against him," he added.
Longtime colleague Robert George, who organized the protest, invited Schwartz to join the group. The Princeton University professor serves as vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Relgious Freedom with Schwartz and the other advocates. Schwartz said it was an unusual undertaking for members of the commission, but he could never turn down such an important cause.
Before coming to the U in 2011, Schwartz had led several philanthropic efforts. He was the State Department's principal humanitarian official under President Obama and managed human rights and peacekeeping affairs for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
With a desire to advance human rights — and encouragement from his wife and two daughters — the professor was confident his participation would be worthwhile.
"I've done far riskier things in my life," the 57-year-old said.
Schwartz said the letter has captured attention, inciting freedom-of-expression rallies worldwide. "Publicity is a powerful thing," he noted.
The second round of flogging has been postponed five times. Officials at Amnesty International reported that Badawi has been slow to recover from his first 50 whippings. "Which is all the more reason for concern," Schwartz said.
Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their children are living in Quebec as refugees. Haidar has been active in several Canadian rallies for her husband, and has expressed her gratitude for the efforts to liberate him.
While touring the Middle East last week, Prince Charles stopped in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and discussed the issue with King Salman, who succeeded King Abdullah after his death in January. Officials present at the meeting said the king's reaction "was not unfriendly."
With a new ruler and mounting pressure from international leaders, Schwartz is hopeful the kingdom will make moves in the right direction. "Concern from around the world is making an impact," he said.
Badawi was scheduled to return to court earlier this month. Amnesty International said the outcome of the case remains uncertain.
"The government's willingness to forgo this extreme punishment would send an important signal to governments around the world that might be inclined to impose similar kinds of punishments," Schwartz said.
Tina Munnell is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.