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Wife of jailed Saudi blogger Badawi campaigns for his release

John MacDougall, AFP | Picture shows the wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, Ensaf Haidar, in Berlin on May 21, 2015
Text by: Charlotte BOITIAUX
4 min

The wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced in 2014 to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison on charges of insulting Islam, says his health is declining rapidly as she campaigns for his release.


“Raif is a man of peace and freedom, he has committed no crime,” his wife Ensaf Haidar told a press conference in Paris on Friday, organised with the help of Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International. “We miss him. I am missing a husband and my children are missing a father.”

Speaking calmly and with a steady timbre, she recounted the nightmare that has engulfed her family.

"As soon as he launched his blog in 2006, Raif began receiving threats. Yet all he did was create a space where people could exchange ideas, that’s it. But things got worse starting in 2008. A first fatwa was launched against him for apostasy [deserting one’s religion]. A Saudi Sheikh accused Raif of not being a true Muslim. Then the situation became really serious and dangerous,” she recalled.

Rights activists say Badawi’s troubles are not unique in Saudi Arabia, where deeply conservative religious forces leave virtually no space for free expression. Badawi, a self-avowed liberal Saudi, was targeted for promoting wider debate of social and religious issues.

‘Never insulting’

Badawi’s case has nevertheless caught the world’s attention. While his wife and three children were exiled in Lebanon and then Canada, Raif was dragged through Saudi Arabia’s maze-like legal system, which is based on Islam's sharia law.

First sentenced in 2013 to seven years behind bars and 600 lashes, the punishment was brought up to 10 years and 1,000 lashes, plus a fine, last year. “Everyone was taken aback, even him,” Haidar said Friday. “His writing has always been respectful of others. He never insulted a religious authority.”

According to a 2013 BBC web article, evidence brought against Badawi included the fact that he pressed the “Like” button on a Facebook page for Arab Christians. Another charge was disobeying his father.

The first 50 lashes of the sentence were administered on January 9, 2015. Badawi, who is said to suffer from hypertension, has struggled to recover from that initial flogging. The second lashings session has reportedly been delayed 12 times.

“His physical state has severely declined. So has his mind. A committee of eight doctors examined him [in prison]. They concluded that his body would not be able to take more lashings,” Haidar said, adding that she had “irregular” communication with her husband at best.

“Raif shares a jail cell with 13 or 14 other inmates. He gets no exercise and very poor nutrition, but I prefer not to say more for fear things will get worse for him,” she said.

Haidar’s campaign on behalf of her husband will take her across Europe in the next few days. Her mission has become all the more pressing in light of a potential new trial against Badawi, this time for apostasy, a crime punishable by death in the Saudi kingdom.

Royal pardon?

Haidar tries to remain hopeful and insists her European tour is already having a positive impact: “I hope it will lead to his release. He already knows he is not alone, even if he has to live with the thought he will not see his children for the next 10 years.”

She said there was also a chance King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud could come to her husband’s rescue. “Every year during Ramadan, the King pardons several prisoners of conscience. This year, perhaps he will show Raif clemency,” she said.

Reporters without Borders chief Christophe Deloire said it was difficult to gauge King Salman.

“It is difficult to know if the king is receptive to outside pressure. But perhaps the suspension of lashings sessions, officially for medical reasons, has to do with the growing outcry from the international community,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has executed 90 people on a variety of charges since the start of the year. Those put behind bars for daring to question the government are a rare few. Besides Badawi, around ten other prisoners are languishing in Saudi jail cells on “fuzzy legal grounds,” according to Amnesty International France President Stephan Oberreit.

“Anyone who dares to speak about subjects related to the king and religion risks a long prison sentence,” he said, noting that Saudi Arabia ranked 164 in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index that includes 180 countries.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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