By C. Michael Forsyth
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ten years ago, muck-raking tabloid reporter Danielle Augustine humiliated the Saudi Royal family by publishing photos of the King’s favorite niece sunning topless on the French Riviera. Now the journalist is about to get a dose of her own medicine. While on a visit to the Middle East, Danielle was arrested by Saudi police, tried and convicted of publishing indecent material. And as punishment, a judge has ordered that she be marched through the capital city’s famed Al-Batha Square — buck naked!
“The prisoner is to have her clothing removed and shall walk 30 meters, from King Abdul Aziz Street to the doorway of Abu’s Electronics,” ordered Judge Ali El-Zarwi.
Human rights organizations worldwide have denounced the bizarre sentence.
“To use forced nudity as a punishment is both degrading and inhumane,” blasted a spokesperson for the European Council for Human Dignity. “Coming at a time when female journalists are being targeted for sexual abuse in the region, this is especially outrageous.”
King Abdullah’s niece Fatima Zehref was just 19 and attending university in France when the eye-popping pics were published in the June 2, 2001 issue of the now-defunct Monde Scandaleuse, accompanied by an article headlined “Saudi Princess is No Boob.”
Her brother Sheik Ahmed Zehref is delighted that the family is finally receiving justice.
“This so-called journalist dishonored our family. Now the shoe is on the other foot,” he said in an interview on Al Jazeera. “Perhaps ‘Mademoiselle Augustine’ thinks that because she is a westerner she is beyond the reach of our laws. But she will have to ‘drop her drawers,’ as the Americans say, just like anyone else.”
In a phone interview from Al Malaz Prison, Danielle insisted that she is a different person from the crafty, anything-for-a-story newshound who stalked the royal on the beach with a photographer in tow. Now a top TV reporter with the prestigious Service D’Information Francaise, she covers only serious news subjects.
“I flew to Saudi Arabia in January to do a story on the plight of lepers in the Middle East,” she explained. “When two agents of the Saudi security service stopped me at the airport and told me I was under arrest, I was flabbergasted.
“I had long since forgotten about the topless beach story and I thought everyone else had too. Mon Dieu! the Muslims took out a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, and they stopped looking for him ages ago. I couldn’t imagine the Royal Family would hold a grudge this long.”
Danielle’s attorney is appealing the highly unusual sentence on the grounds that it violates Sharia, sacred Islamic law.
“Moslem women are not even supposed to bare their arms in public,” he pointed out.
But because Danielle is a foreign born non-Moslem — an “infidel” in the eyes of the court — such modesty rules do not apply, according to the prosecutor.
If all appeals fail, on May 5, Danielle will be escorted the length of a football field, through the crowded market place, without a single stitch of clothing.
“Some older, conservative men may avert their eyes, but I wouldn’t count on it,” said her lawyer, Mahmoud al-Hiydah, grimly.
Danielle, 36, is mortified at the prospect of being paraded through a public square naked.
“When I think of all those beady eyes on me, I want to throw up,” she said tearfully.
But the former tabloid hotshot gets little sympathy from loyal supporters of the Royal Family, who believe the sentence doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“If it were up to me, the prostitute who wrote this obscene story on her wicked typewriter would have her fingers chopped off one by one, as they would have done in the good old days,” declared an elderly Riyadh shopkeeper.
Journalists from around the globe are rallying around Danielle. A petition drive is in the works pleading for leniency and will be submitted to King Abdullah.
“We already have 500 signatures,” revealed British reporter Graham Landsman. “If we get enough respected journalists like Katie Couric, Wolf Blitzer and Bill O’Reilly on board, we hope that the Royal Family will show mercy.”
But a handful of Danielle’s rivals in the close-knit European journalistic community admit they privately relish the thought of the renowned TV correspondent being caught with her pants down. They resent Danielle’s quick rise from gutter journalism to the highest level of the field. And they assert that the reporter’s pouty lips and curvaceous figure helped her leap frog over more qualified but less attractive competitors.
“Danielle used her sexy body and sneaky tactics to get to the top,” said a female Parisian TV reporter who requested anonymity. “Now that’s come around to bite her right on that perfect butt of hers.
“Karma? I don’t use such fancy words. Let’s just call it tit for tat.”
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