For seven years, she has been waiting for the return of her husband, Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "apostasy and insults against Islam". For seven years, she has been travelling the world, seeking support for her attempts to secure the release of the father of her three children. Raif Badawi has been detained in Saudi Arabia since June 2012 for having campaigned on his website, Free Saudi Liberals Forum, for freedom of expression. For seven years, she has only heard his voice from time to time from the jail in Dahabane where he is being held. For the last seven years, when she asks him how he is doing, he has answered: "Don't ask me.»
Ensaf Haidar never gave up. But she "regained hope" after the US vice-president Mike Pence called for the release of the 35-year-old activist. An appeal made to Saudi Arabia on July 18 from Washington, D.C., at a conference on religious freedom. "In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi is still in prison for the alleged crime of criticizing Islam through electronic means," said Pence, who cited the Riyadh regime's critic and the names of others detained for speaking out against religion in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Mauritania and Pakistan. "The American people stand by them, and today The United States calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go”, he added.
Ensaf Haïdar confided her "new hope" to L'Orient-Le Jour in an interview after Washington's request to Riyadh, seen by analysts as a rare distancing of the Trump administration from its strategic ally. From the city of Sherbrooke in Quebec, where she lives with her three children aged 16, 15 and 12, after having obtained asylum at the end of October 2013 and Canadian citizenship in 2018, the President of the Raif Badawi Foundation "welcomes this position, which comes for the first time directly from the Office of the American President". The woman who "became an activist due to circumstance" and who has appeared before the American Congress more than once is now asking to personally meet with Donald Trump. "I would like to meet the American President," she says. “He is the only one who can obtain Raif's release." So far, no one has so far managed to obtain a pardon for her husband, “sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment followed by a 10-year travel ban, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million Saudi riyals (over 260,000 US dollars)", despite calls from the major powers, the European Union, the United Nations, and various human rights organizations. The blogger has even received the Sakharov Prize in 2015 from the European Parliament, which honors the most influential figures in the field of human rights and freedom of expression. "Only his lashing sentence has been suspended for the time being, following a worldwide wave of protest," she said. The first 50 lashes were inflicted on the blogger in 2015 in Jeddah. "A committee of eight doctors had stated in a report that Raif could not survive this punishment, which he would have had to face weekly [until completion]. But at any time, they can choose to resume his sentence," she notes, with a lump in her throat, refusing to mention the conditions of her husband's detention.
Sherbrooke and other Canadian cities adopt the cause
As for Canada, "it did the best it could". "Quebec has done its utmost. It took me and my children in. They granted us citizenship and assistance to my children, all three of whom are minors. Several Canadian cities have offered my husband honorary citizenship. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Riyadh for the release of Raif.” But the young woman who talks about "the poor relations" between Canada and Saudi Arabia, continues the struggle and knocks on every door. And in her city of Sherbrooke, "which has adopted Raif's cause", a weekly vigil is organized on Fridays in front of City Hall to support her husband. Last February, the young woman took part in the 7th World Congress against the Death Penalty in Brussels, organized by the ECPM association in the European Parliament, where she once again urged Europe and international bodies to mobilize for the release of her husband. "I won't stop, as long as Raif is still in prison," she promises.
Nevertheless, "seven years in prison is a very long time". Ms. Haïdar expresses her deep exasperation, to the point of anger. "That's enough, for him and for us!" she shouts. "Raif has been detained for seven years, although he has not committed any crime. It's been eight years since his children last saw him," she says. All he did was stand up for his rights. He campaigned for religious freedom, women's rights and an end to religious power in Saudi Arabia.”
Abandoned by their family in Saudi Arabia
But the Saudi authorities do not share Ensaf’s view of Raif. Since he started his blog, called "Saudi Liberals", in 2008, the activist has been the target of repressive measures. "He was immediately banned from traveling and his bank accounts were blocked," recalls his wife. He no longer had the right to undertake any administrative formalities. So, before he could try to understand what he was accused of and to fight for his rights, the blogger pushed his wife to leave the country with their children. "As long as we were in Saudi Arabia, he didn't want to fight back. He preferred to first know we were safe," she explains. But at the same time, he was convinced that this was a problem that could be solved in a month and that everything would quickly return to normal." Ensaf Haidar and her children left their country towards the end of 2011 for Egypt and then Lebanon. Raif Badawi was arrested on 17 June 2012 and his blog was shut down. This constituted a "drama" for their small family, quickly, and completely, abandoned by their relatives. "Raif is our only connection to Saudi Arabia. And he has only us left," says his wife.
Then came the first verdict. "The Saudi authorities first sentenced him to death," she recalls. After a first appeal, the death penalty was commuted to seven years' imprisonment and 600 lashes. But at the end of a second appeal, "a harsher final verdict was pronounced," she says with regret, referring to the 10-year prison sentence and the 1,000 lashes he could face again at any time.
Raif Badawi has become an emblem of freedom of expression around the world, but the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, has still not responded to the American injunction. Ensaf Haidar is certain that "freedom is near" for the one she loves and equally, she is sure that she will wait for "all her life" to see him again.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 24th of July)
For seven years, she has been waiting for the return of her husband, Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "apostasy and insults against Islam". For seven years, she has been travelling the world, seeking support for her attempts to secure the release of the father of her three children. Raif Badawi has been detained in Saudi Arabia since June...