On 17 June 2012, Raif Badawi was arrested his home country of Saudi Arabia. He spent almost two years in prison before he was convicted in May 2014 for insulting Islam. Initially, the court sought the death penalty. In the end, he was fined one million riyals (£175,000) and handed a 10-year prison sentence and 1,000 lashes. His crime? Starting a website, Free Saudi Liberals, a platform for serious discussion of liberal ideas, the religious authorities and the Wahhabi Islam that dominates in the kingdom. Amnesty International describes him as a prisoner of conscience, “detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”.
In 2013, his wife, Ensaf Haidar, moved to Canada with their three children; it was not safe for them to stay in Saudi Arabia. She was thousands of miles away when, on January 9, 2015, after morning prayers, Badawi was flogged 50 times. Lashing was supposed to take place every Friday until he had received 1,000. But none have taken place since the first incident. This was initially because of Badawi’s poor physical state, although no explanation has been given for the continued pause.
The lashings made international news; the European Union called it a “cruel and shocking act”, later awarding Badawi the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The punishment took place in public and a video circulated online. Haidar, at her new home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, was distraught – and desperate to shield her children, though, like any modern kids, they’re internet-savvy. “I want to protect them as much as possible,” she says. “I hope they haven’t seen the videos. If they have, they haven’t told me.”
This month marks five years since Haidar last saw her husband. She has tirelessly campaigned for his release, travelling around the world with Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders to raise awareness of his brutal sentence, and of the wider restrictions on freedom of speech in her home country. For over 100 weeks, she has held a weekly vigil outside the Saudi embassy in Canada.
Similar vigils take place at Saudi embassies around the world. I met her during a recent trip to London, where she was joining a vigil outside the embassy to mark five years of imprisonment and call for Badawi’s immediate release. Haidar is a tiny woman of 35, with striking features and pale grey eyes. She looks exhausted. “Frankly, I don’t have any choice but to be optimistic,” she says. “If I don’t stay positive, I will destroy myself."
I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right
The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”
In her years of campaigning, Haidar has met with politicians in Canada, America and the UK to ask them to lobby the Saudi government. She believes that this has the potential to get leaders to pardon Badawi. But it is an uphill struggle.
In recent weeks, Britain’s relationship to Saudi Arabia has come under scrutiny. In April, Theresa May was forced to defend UK ties to the country, after a visit there to shore up trade relations. We sell billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, and the country is also seen as an essential partner in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East. For this reason, successive British leaders have been reluctant to speak out about Saudi Arabia’s dire record on women’s rights and human rights, and the country’s role in fomenting extremism.
Back in 2015, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “UK officials have been far too reticent for far too long over Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human-rights record. They’ve effectively been wearing a muzzle when it comes to Saudi human-rights abuses.” Little has changed since.
The possibility that the lashes will resume hangs heavily over the family – as does the prospect of five more years of waiting. Haidar speaks to Badawi most weeks, although, when he is feeling particularly low, sometimes he doesn’t call for a month. To boost his morale, she updates him on the international coverage of his case and the different people advocating for him.
As the children get older (the eldest is now 13, the youngest nine), they know that their father is imprisoned – but can’t quite fathom why. “They have lived most of their lives in open societies, in Canada. It’s difficult for them to understand how launching a website can put you in prison. They’re lost in their heads about it.”
It has been five years since she last saw her home country. I ask whether she misses it. “I am really focused on Raif – I don’t think of Saudi Arabia as the country,” she says. “Maybe when he gets out, I will be nostalgic of moments we had when they were there. I stop my mind on Raif for now.”