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Saudi Arabia

Blogger Raif Badawi's long struggle for freedom of expression

Saudi blogger and activist Raif Badawi started criticizing his country's regime more than six years ago. Since then, his family has been threatened and fled to Canada and his lawyer has been arrested.

The flogging of Raif Badawi has been postponed for the third time. On Friday, the public learned that the blogger would not receive the next 50 lashes of his cruel 1,000-lash punishment. That doesn't change the fact that he is in bad physical shape. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, told journalists in Ottawa, Canada, that her husband suffered from hypertension and another round of beating could weaken him significantly. "I am very concerned about him," Haidar said.

The whole world has followed Badawi's case over the last few weeks. Public protest has picked up steam since he was first publicly flogged on January 9 in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, after being found guilty of insulting Islam and breaking Saudi technology laws with his website "Free Saudi Liberals." He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison and fined 1 million riyals ($266,000) in May 2014. But Badawi's struggle has been going on for much longer.

Daring online activism

Badawi was born in Al Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia on January 13, 1984. He and his older sister, Samar, were educated to seventh-grade level. Activism in the face of the strict Islamic regime seems to run in the family: Samar has campaigned for women's suffrage and women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia. In 2012, she was awarded the US State Department's International Women of Courage Award.

Ensaf Haidar at a protest. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, is fighting for her husband's release

With the "Free Saudi Liberals" website, Raif Badawi took his criticism of the regime online. He created the website in 2008 as a forum for liberals to discuss Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi leadership.

Ensaf Haidar, whom Badawi married in 2002, told Pen Canada, a group that promotes freedom of expression, that he believed in liberalism as an "intellectual project" that aspired to "represent Saudi liberals on the ground, and fight injustice wherever it exists."

Badawi didn't hold back his views about how unjust the system that ruled his country really was. In addition to writing about Valentine's Day, the celebration of which is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, he wrote and published sarcastic articles about the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue, criticized senior political figures and said that the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh had become "a den for terrorists."

Charged with abandoning Islam

It didn't take long for Saudi officials to intervene. In March 2008, authorities arrested Badawi and questioned him about his website. Two months later, in May, he was charged with "setting up an electronic site that insults Islam." According to Human Rights Watch, he then left the country. Later in 2008, prosecutors, however, dropped the charges against him and Badawi returned to Saudi Arabia.

He was banned from leaving the country in 2009 and had his bank accounts frozen by the government. He was then arrested June 17, 2012 and appeared before a court in December 2012 on charges of ridiculing Islamic religious figures on his website.

He was also referred to a higher court for the charge of apostasy, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. One "proof" for Badawi's apostasy seems to have been that he liked a Facebook page for Arabic Christians. According to Human Rights Watch, a Saudi cleric also accused him of saying "that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal," which was also seen as a sign of apostasy.

International support

The apostasy charges were eventually dropped, but medical experts say the 1,000 lashes Badawi now has to endure are basically a death sentence dragged out over 20 weeks. The case has also affected Badawi's family. His wife fled Saudi Arabia in 2013 after receiving death threats. She said she feared for her safety and that of their children, Terad, Najwa and Miriam. They obtained political asylum in Quebec, Canada.

Protesters are holding candles and signs that say Free Raif. (Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire)

Protests in support of the blogger have taken place all over the world, including this one in London

Badawi's lawyer was arrested after setting up a Saudi human rights organization. Charges against him included "breaking allegiance with the ruler" and in 2014 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a subsequent 15-year-ban on traveling.

With Badawi's health deteriorating, protesters all over the world are demanding the blogger be released and exonerated. Campaigns on social media and petitions by organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders are helping him to keep up hope, his wife said.

But the final decision on his fate lies with the Saudi regime, whose flaws Raif Badawi never hesitated to point out.

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