“It’s a life of waiting,” said Ensaf Haidar, whose husband, Raif Badawi, a blogger who has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for almost four years.
Haidar, who lives in exile in Canada with their three young children, is in Washington this week, meeting with members of Congress and officials at the State Department trying to persuade the U.S. government to put more effort into seeking her husband’s release.
Badawi, 31, was sentenced in 2014 to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, along with a fine of more than $250,000, for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious and political leaders on his Saudi Liberal Network Web site.
“He is just a blogger,” said Haidar, 36, a tiny woman whose speech is careful and contained, and without any trace of anger. “He has been away from his kids and his family for four years, and there is no valid reason for that. He’s just a very peaceful writer.”
Badawi received the first 50 of his lashes in January in a public square outside a mosque in the port city of Jiddah. A video posted on YouTube showed him standing silently as a police officer struck his back and legs with a wooden cane and onlookers cheered “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” Saudi officials said the lashings would continue, 50 every Friday for the following 19 weeks.
Revulsion at the lashings was immediate and fierce as human rights groups around the world called them barbaric, especially for speech that would be regarded as totally innocuous in the West. Even U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein called on the king to pardon Badawi and halt his “cruel and inhuman punishment.”
In the face of global disgust, Saudi officials quickly postponed the next week’s lashings, saying that Badawi had not yet healed sufficiently from the wounds. Haidar said it was actually because of the hypertension he has developed in prison.
The Saudis also took the unusual step of referring Badawi’s case to the Supreme Court for review, which raised hopes among rights experts that newly crowned King Salman would seek a way to diffuse the situation, perhaps even pardoning Badawi.
Those hopes ended in June, when the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the punishment. Under Saudi law, there is no further appeal available, but Haidar said she still hopes that King Salman will pardon Badawi.
“Of course he can, but I don’t know if he will,” she said.
Haidar is clearly not interested in picking political fights. She says she wishes President Obama would pressure the Saudis more, and she hopes that he raised human rights issues privately with Salman when the king visited Washington recently, even though there was no mention of human rights in Obama’s public comments.
But she was careful not to criticize Obama.
“I can’t say that I am disappointed,” she said with a smile. “I thank all the governments who have helped me, and I wish they would push on the case more.”
Sunjeev Bery, an Amnesty International official accompanying Haidar on her Washington visit, had no reservations about criticizing U.S. leadership.
“It’s time for the White House to make human rights in Saudi Arabia a top priority,” he said. “For too long the U.S. government has put geopolitics and the energy relationship over the basic freedoms and human rights of the Saudi Arabian people.”
Badawi’s case is seen by human rights groups as part of a campaign by the Saudi government to punish activists, bloggers, journalists and anyone else who challenges the country’s political or religious establishment.
He is the best known of about a dozen or so activists currently in Saudi jails, including Mohammad al-Qahtani, a human rights activist with a doctorate from Indiana University, and Waleed Abulkhair, a human rights lawyer who has represented Badawi. Qahtani is serving ten years, and Abulkhair is serving 15.
“The government is just cracking down with extraordinarily long prison sentences in response to very mild-mannered calls for reform,” Bery said.
Saudi officials have told rights groups to back off. Some, including Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, the former longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, have criticized “outside interference” by rights groups and the media in the Badawi case.
But the chorus of condemnation continues: The European Parliament announced this week that Badawi is on the shortlist for the prestigious Sakharov Human Rights Prize, which will be awarded in October. Previous winners have included Nelson Mandela and Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
A group of nine leading human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to Salman earlier this month saying they were “gravely concerned about the worsening situation of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.”
Reporters Without Borders has called Badawi’s detention “an insult to intelligence and liberty,” awarded Badawi its Press Freedom Prize in 2014.
The group also sent an open letter to Obama this month urging him to raise Saudi Arabia’s “dismal human rights record,” including Badawi’s case, with King Salman on his official visit to Washington.
“Badawi’s situation is merely one example of Saudi Arabia’s brutal response to any voice deemed too liberal by the royal family and religious authorities,” the letter said, noting that Saudi Arabia ranks 164th out of 180 countries on its press freedom list.
Obama has been publicly critical of Saudi Arabia’s repressive political culture, but it was unclear whether he raised human rights issues with Salman during their private meetings. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Obama said he and Salman had discussed the situation in Syria, Yemen and Iran, but he made no reference to human rights. The two leaders seemed mainly intent on presenting a united front and sidestepping differences over the Iran nuclear deal.
For her part, Haidar has been traveling and speaking out from her home in the Canadian town of Sherbrooke, Quebec, where she and the children have been living with asylum.
Haidar has started the Raif Badawi Foundation to push for his release and promote freedom of expression and religion. South African Nobel Prize-winner Desmond Tutu, author Salman Rushdie and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales have signed up as honorary board members.
Earlier this year, Badawi’s supporters published a book by Badawi, called “1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think” (Greystone Books). The book is a collection of Badawi’s blog posts, and Haidar said he dictated the introduction to her over the course of many phone calls from prison.
On the back cover, Rushdie writes:
“Raif Badawi’s is an important voice for all of us to hear, mild, nuanced, but clear….He must also be read, so that we understand the struggle within Islam between suffocating orthodoxy and free expression, and make sure we find ourselves on the right side of that struggle.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch activist who advocates Islamic reforms, also wrote: “Badawi writes for his generation, and for all those interested in changing the Arab and Islamic world for the better.”
Haidar said she is grateful for the support, but she is worried about her family.
She speaks to Badawi a couple of times a week when he calls from prison.
“He’s not feeling good, mentally or physically. He’s been treated like any other prisoner, but prison is still prison,” she said. “It’s not fair, and being away from his kids is not fair.”
She said she and her children are learning French and trying to adapt to life in Canada, but she said the situation is “very, very cruel” for her kids, who are 12, 11 and 8—two girls and a boy.
“They miss their dad, and they miss me when I am out trying to find support for his case,” she said.
She said she was worried that the ordeal could last for years more, and that the weekly public lashings could resume at any time.
“We fear every Friday,” she said.