RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Mohammad al-Qahtani usually talks to his family at 2 a.m., when his prison cellblock in Saudi Arabia is quiet and his wife is making dinner for their five kids in their home in exile in Rochester, N.Y.
Every night, Qahtani, a human rights activist serving 10 years in prison for “questioning the integrity” of Saudi government officials, sings “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to his 2-year-old daughter, whom he has not seen since before he was imprisoned in March 2013.
“In this country, if you open your mouth, you end up in prison,” Qahtani, an academic with a PhD in economics from Indiana University, said in a telephone interview from his prison in the Saudi capital.
The case of Raif Badawi, a blogger whose criticism of Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious leaders led to a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in public, has focused harsh international attention in recent days on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
But Badawi’s case is simply the most recent example of what rights groups call an intensifying campaign to punish activists, bloggers and anyone else who challenges the country’s political or religious leaders. People have been jailed for tweets, and two women have been held since early December for defying the ban on women driving.
“The government wants to send a message to the people: If you think like them, if you talk like them, you will spend all your life in the jail. They want to make an example of these people,” Samar Badawi, the blogger’s sister, who is also a human rights activist, said in a telephone interview from her home in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah.
Samar Badawi in 2012 received a U.S. State Department “International Women of Courage Award,” which was presented to her in Washington by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama.
She has been especially affected by the government’s imprisonment in the past two years of at least a dozen activists for speech it deems criminal but which would be considered harmless by Western standards. In addition to her brother, who angered authorities by saying the country’s religious establishment has too much influence, her husband, Waleed Abulkhair, has been locked up since last April.
Abulkhair, 35, is a human rights lawyer convicted of “disrespecting the authorities” and “disobeying the ruler” after he criticized the government’s rights record and founded a human rights organization. Abulkhair was originally sentenced to 10 years and fined more than $250,000, but last week a Saudi judge increased the prison term to 15 years when Abulkhair refused to sign an apology and pledge to refrain from further dissent.
“I am happy that Waleed didn’t apologize, because he didn’t do anything wrong,” Samar Badawi said.
Still, she said, the government’s actions have silenced many activists. “Everyone is afraid. They cannot talk, they cannot move, they can’t do anything,” she said.
“I don’t have any choice,” she said when asked why she was willing to speak to a reporter. “I must let all the world [know] what is going on here in Saudi Arabia. I have to do this for my husband, for my brother and for my daughter; I have to do something.”
Saudi Arabia has long been assailed for its human rights record, which the U.S. State Department says includes the use of torture and arbitrary detention. The country also applies an especially strict form of Islamic law, or sharia, which has resulted in at least 10 beheadings this year, according to media reports.
U.S. officials have issued statements criticizing the treatment of Badawi, Abulkhair and other dissidents, but Washington is cautious about pressing hard publicly on human rights with Riyadh, a key military ally and economic partner.
Saudi Arabia and three other Muslim countries are taking part with the United States in a military campaign against Islamic State fighters. The kingdom is also one of the world’s largest producers of oil and the second-largest source, after Canada, of oil imported into the United States.
But Badawi’s case has set off a wave of international condemnation as the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and human rights groups around the world have decried the lashings. Protesters have picketed Saudi embassies in Washington, Europe and Canada.
A bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators wrote to Saudi King Abdullah on Friday calling for Badawi’s immediate release and calling his flogging “barbaric.”
“Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in a statement. “I appeal to the King of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Mr. Badawi, and to urgently review this type of extraordinarily harsh penalty.”
A Saudi government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he did not understand why international groups were so focused on flogging, which is standard practice in many Muslim nations.
“Flogging is a punishment approved by the religion of Islam,” he said. “If your court system is based on Islamic sharia law, you will find this sort of punishment. They do it in Iran, they do it in Afghanistan, and nobody complains.”
The official also said that Badawi’s case was serious because “he insulted Islam.”
In a deeply conservative Muslim nation, he said, the government must punish any perceived insults to the religion, because failing to do so would tempt vigilantes to take revenge on the alleged perpetrators.
“The government tries its best,” he said.
Badawi, 31, received the first 50 of his lashes Jan. 9 in a public square outside a Jiddah mosque after Friday prayers, a scene captured in a video posted on YouTube. It showed Badawi standing silently as a police officer struck his back and legs, and when the 10-minute punishment ended, onlookers cheered “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”
Badawi is to receive 50 more lashes each Friday for 19 more weeks, but medical officials last Friday concluded that his wounds had not healed sufficiently, according to Ensaf Haidar, Badawi’s wife, reached by telephone in Montreal, where she lives with the couple’s three children.
“It’s a horrendous situation that no one should accept,” said Haidar, who moved to Canada 14 months ago because she no longer felt safe in her home country. “I have no loyalty to this government any longer. No one should be loyal to a government that tortures its sons and robs their humanity.”
Haidar said Friday that she was told that the king’s office had taken the unusual step of referring Badawi’s case to the Supreme Court for review.
“The government changed its decision because of pressure from people in the outside world,” Haidar said. “I am hopeful that he and I and our children will all be back together again one day.”
Saudi human rights activists trace the government’s new zeal to prosecute dissenters to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which toppled authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
Saudi officials largely averted protests at home, mainly by spending tens of billions of dollars on housing, jobs and other benefits designed to appease citizens.
Rights activists said the government also started a campaign to silence dissent, especially targeting those who used Twitter and other social media networks that had served as a key organizing tool for anti-government demonstrations in other countries.
“The regime is so scared,” Qahtani said from prison. “In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the toppling of so many corrupt dictators, they are terrified. They tried to bribe people. They waited until they weathered the storm, and then they went out and rounded up everyone who opposed them and threw them in jail.”
Qahtani said the government was “obsessed by social media.”
“For years they controlled the media — the TV stations and the newspapers,” he said. “Now they are losing control because of social media.”
The government last year enacted an anti-terrorism law, which rights groups have denounced as vague and giving the Interior Ministry broad powers to arrest those who criticize authorities. Abulkhair was the first person arrested under the law.
Qahtani, 49, said he has settled into a routine in his prison in Riyadh. In addition to his nightly call to his family, he said, he exercises every morning in his cell and reads newspapers and watches television news to keep up on current events. His wife, Maha, who is studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, sends him about $300 worth of telephone calling cards each month.
He said he believes that the Saudi political system should be changed to a constitutional monarchy, which he said would provide more accountability to the people. He said the judiciary is still run largely on the whims of judges, without a standardized penal code.
Reforms are especially important in light of the rise of the Islamic State and other violent religious groups, he said.
“If we would have political reforms and guarantee free expression, people would not feel the need to resort to violence,” he said. “So many Saudis are engaged with the Islamic State because of the lack of political freedoms in our country. They are frustrated because they cannot express themselves.”
He said he has seen young men in prison being recruited to join the Islamic State.
“I try to talk them out of it, but no luck. Basically, they feel really helpless. It’s like committing suicide for them to join the Islamic State, but they feel that their lives don’t matter because of the injustice in this country. That’s what happens when people are deprived of their rights.”