Wife of Saudi Blogger Sentenced to 1,000 Lashes Comes to the U.S. to Fight for His Release 


Ensaf Haidar hasn’t seen her husband since 2012, but “the nightmare” as she calls it, began eight years ago, when her husband Raif Baidawi was first summoned by Saudi Arabian authorities for questioning about his blog. Badawi has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crime of blogging, as well as 1,000 lashes. It’s a punishment that Haidar, the mother of his three children, fears will kill him.

“Our life before the arrest was great, even more than great,” she told Jezebel quietly on Thursday afternoon during an interview at Amnesty International’s New York offices. Haidar is small and very slight, barely clearing five feet tall even in a stacked set of heels. She is 35 but would look, at times, like a teenager, if it weren’t for the evident grief in her face. She spoke in Arabic, with a translator carefully taking notes.

“Our life was almost perfect,” she said, cracking a half-smile. “Maybe I’m the only one who saw life like this, but really he’s a wonderful father and perfect husband.” He would even vacuum and help with the children, she added, which is unusual for Saudi men.

“That’s exactly why she thinks he’s a perfect husband,” the female translator explained, with a sad smile. “They were co-parents.” Haider has previously described her husband as her “best friend.”

The couple were married in 2002. In 2007, Badawi launched his blog, “Free Saudi Liberals.” The blog openly questioned Saudi Arabia’s religious leadership, and bloggers and commenters debated religion’s role in public life. She told Jezebel Thursday that her husband is a passionate advocate for the rights of women, and wrote frequently about their restricted legal rights.

“He identified as pro-women’s rights and feminism,” she said. “That is how it’s supposed to be. Women and men should have the same rights.”

It didn’t take long Badawi was summoned for questioning by government authorities. They were particularly concerned with whether he’d mocked the the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the country’s religious police.

By 2008, Badawi was being investigated for “apostasy,” a crime which for men is punishable by death by beheading. He was detained for one night that year and released. By 2009, the government had frozen his assets and barred him from traveling abroad.

Ensaf Haidar and the couple’s three small children—two girls and a boy—applied for asylum with the United Nations in 2012 and fled to Canada. The same year, Badawi was arrested, and hasn’t seen his family since. While prosecutors couldn’t ultimately make the apostasy charge stick, Badawai was tried and convicted for disobeying his father (a crime in Saudi Arabia; the man reportedly went on TV to denounce his son), breaking technology laws, and insulting Islam. He initially received seven years in prison and six hundred lashes as a sentence; when prosecutors deemed that too light, they successfully retried him in 2014, winning the new sentence of 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine of 1 million riyals or about $266,600. His blog, obviously, was shut down.

The lashes are to be administered with a large wooden cane in public. A witness told the Associated Press that Badawi underwent the first 50 lashes this January in a public square in Jiddah, his hands and feet shackled as he was beaten on the back. His pain, the witness told the AP, was evident.

Badawi is a small-framed man who suffers from diabetes and hypertension. Amnesty International learned that the next 50 lashes, due to be delivered the following week, were postponed after a doctor examined him and concluded that his wounds hadn’t healed, and that he wouldn’t be able to withstand another beating.

The floggings were postponed then, and then again as the Saudi Supreme Court reviewed Badawi’s case. But in June, the court upheld the judgment against him. The only way his sentence could be overturned is by a pardon from King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Saudia Arabia is a close ally of the United States, and the Obama administration has, so far, issued fairly mild condemnation of Badawi’s treatment. (And that allyship may also be why our government has said little as Saudia Arabia executed dozens of people in the last year, many of them for nonviolent crimes like drug smuggling and “sorcery.” Homosexuality is also still a crime, punishable by flogging and, in some cases, execution.)

In January, a State Department spokesperson called the Badawi flogging “inhumane” and said Badawi’s case should be reviewed. But President Obama has yet to directly call on King Salman to pardon the man.

This week, Haidar traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress, trying to drum up even more support for her husband. It’s already considerable: 60 members of Congress sent a letter to King Salman in March asking for Badawi and other prisoners of conscience to be released, and the New York Times editorial board called for clemency for him in June.

But without the direct and open support from the U.S. State Department and President Obama, Congress’s calls for mercy will likely go ignored. Amnesty International said Haidar was set to meet with State Department officials Friday; there’s no word yet how that meeting went.

As Haidar waits for news on whether Badawi’s floggings will resume, she also struggles with what to tell their children; they know “only what their age allows them to” about his situation, she says. Badawi is able to call her once or twice a week. They can only talk for about 10 minutes each time.

Speaking to members of Congress, Haidar said, gave her “special hope.” She wants the Obama Administration to specifically ask that Badawi be freed and allowed to leave the country to join her and the children; Canada has already said he will be granted asylum.

“She wishes Obama would personally speak to the king,” the translator said.

There’s been some speculation that the fight against the Islamic State plays a role in the Obama Administration’s silence. Saudia Arabia is part of a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and has participated in air strikes against the terrorist group.

But Haider rejects that advocating for her husband would somehow endanger the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship.

“It just doesn’t make sense that his case would be impacted by these negotiations,” she says. “His place is not in prison. His place is outside, regardless of what the political scene is. He was a peaceful person.”

Both the fear of future floggings and the prospect of her husband being in prison for ten years have “the same weight on her shoulders,” the translator told me.

“Her hope does not end,” she added. “Her belief in his case. Sometimes if he doesn’t call her, she thinks he’s going to surprise her and show up at her doorstep.”

Contact the author at [email protected].
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Ensaf Haidar, pictured in Berlin, May 21, 2015. Photo via Getty Images

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