Ensaf Haidar, the wife of an imprisoned Saudi Arabian journalist, recently visited the United States as part of her ongoing campaign to free her husband, and to remind the world of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on peaceful dissidents.
Raif Badawi was jailed in 2012 and later publicly flogged for running a website called Free Saudi Liberals, and for publishing blog posts a court found to have “insulted Islam.” He was also convicted of having violated an anti-cybercrime law because his site “infringe[d] on religious values.”
Haidar has for years been speaking out against her husband’s imprisonment, hoping to pressure Saudi authorities to free him. His health is deteriorating, and without access to medical care he will continue to suffer the effects of the flogging, she says. Haidar came to the United States, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, to speak with the media and members of Congress – 67 of whom signed a letter in March calling on Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to release Badawi.
Haidar wants President Obama to lobby for her husband’s release as well. “I definitely hope [Obama] would have a personal conversation with King Salman and be able to persuade him to let Raif go free,” she tells Rolling Stone through an interpreter.
In 2008, after founding his website, Badawi was detained for a day; the following year, the Saudi government placed a travel ban on him. A month before his 2012 arrest, he called for a “day for Saudi liberals,” which his lawyer has suggested may have made him a target for the authorities.
In 2014, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, to be dolled out 50 at a time. The first round of lashes came this January, in a public square in Jeddeh following Friday prayers. Badawi’s sentence was upheld by Saudi Arabia’s supreme court in June, thus foreclosing the possibility of any further appeals.
The first set of lashings left Badawi in such poor health that the authorities postponed a second round, though they could restart any week. “Every Friday I think of him, and I’m worried,” says Haidar. “Both physically and spiritually he’s not doing well. It’s been four years since he’s seen his kids.” She says Badawi is suffering from high blood pressure as a result of the lashings.
In a forward to his recently published book, 1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think – a collection of his surviving blog posts – Badawi describes the bathroom in his prison as covered in excrement. “Raif tries not to tell me about the conditions in the prison, but I know cleanliness is an issue,” Haidar says. She says he doesn’t have access to medical care.
Haidar speaks with Badawi on the phone once or twice a week from Quebec, where she and their three children have been granted asylum.
Haidar’s comments come at a particularly sensitive time for Saudi Arabia, as the country faces increasing scrutiny for human rights abuses carried out domestically and abroad. A Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition has waged a six-month bombing campaign against Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen, resulting in the deaths of at least 2,100 civilians, including 400 children, according to Amnesty International.
Internally, Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are just as gruesome. Much of the world has reacted in horror to news that the country has sentenced a young activist named Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr to death by beheading followed by crucifixion for attending a pro-democracy protest in 2012. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department declined to comment to the Associated Press on that sentence, and praised Saudi’s recent appointment to chair a UN human rights panel.
“Raif’s case is part of a much larger crackdown on freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia since 2011,” says Jasmine Heiss, a regional campaigner for Amnesty International, which facilitated Rolling Stone‘s interview with Haidar. “The authorities have really intensified the arrest and repression of human rights defenders in the name of security. We know there are at least dozens of other prisoners of conscience; there may be up to thousands of persons in prisons and jails in Saudi Arabia for peaceably expressing their beliefs and for their work on human rights.”
Haidar says her husband never expected to be arrested for expressing his opinions. When asked what ordinary life was like before he was jailed, she lights up. “It’s not in front of the media – but he was really a great husband, one of the best husbands I’ve known of, and also one of the best fathers,” she says. “He was the person taking care of the kids inside the house, and taking them to school, and now suddenly he’s stripped away from that, and I’m a single parent.”