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PoliticsMiddle East

Raif Badawi: 9 years in a Saudi prison

June 17, 2021

Despite international pressure and efforts to secure his release, this week marks the ninth anniversary of the Saudi dissident's arrest.

Ensaf Haidar holds a picture of her husband Raif Badawi after accepting the European Parliament's Sakharov human rights prize on behalf of her husband.
Raif Badawi's wife has been integral to efforts to try to free himImage: Patreich Ertzog/AFP/Getty Images

Things are not going well for Raif Badawi. The Saudi Arabian writer has been in prison in the Gulf state since June 2012, when he was arrested for what he wrote on a website that he founded called Free Saudi Liberals.

Badawi was charged with "insulting Islam" by promoting secularism on his blog. In 2014, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a $266,000 fine and 1,000 lashes. Despite a number of international campaigns to try and secure an earlier release, he may well remain in jail in Saudi Arabia until late February 2022. This would be the date of his release according to the Islamic calendar that was used to sentence him.

His wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with the couple's three children, said that her husband continues to suffer. He has previously gone on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of his imprisonment. In the past his belongings, including books and medication, have been confiscated.

Raif Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar.
Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar: "We need his presence"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Heinl

Travel ban even after eventual release

"Raif is in psychological distress and needs to be released from prison quickly," she told DW. "I hope it will be very, very soon. There is a relaxation of the laws [in Saudi Arabia], a little more equality between men and women, and the country is modernizing. Raif wanted all of this for our country. But," she added, "what worries me is that after 10 years in prison, he is prohibited from leaving the country."

Part of Badawi's 2014 sentence involves a decade-long travel ban, which would essentially prevent him from leaving Saudi Arabia after he is released.

The couple's three children are now teenagers and have grown up without their father, Haidar added. "For them, it is worse today because the older they get, the more they are aware that their father has been missing during their childhood."

Becoming Canadian

The 10-year travel ban "creates a real imposition in humanitarian terms, with family reunification and in other ways," said Irwin Cotler, head of the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights; Cotler provides international legal representation for Badawi.

This is why measures to try to make Badawi a Canadian citizenare so important right now, Cotler, argued.

Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler is a former Canadian justice ministerImage: Salvatore Di Nolfi/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

Canada has the discretion to grant citizenship to any person in cases of "special and unusual hardship," according to the country's Citizenship Act and, in January, the lower house of the Canadian Parliament approved a motion that would grant Badawi Canadian citizenship. This month, on June 4, the upper house of parliament, the Senate, also passed a motion approving of citizenship for the Saudi Arabian writer.

"In my view, granting [him] Canadian citizenship could have several benefits," said Julie Miville-Dechene, the Canadian senator who tabled the Senate motion. It would give the Canadian government more opportunities to provide Badawi with consular and legal assistance, she said, as well as to arrange consular visits and possibly improve his situation in jail.

"Such visits and consular assistance could alleviate his psychological distress and would be of great comfort to his relatives," said Miville-Dechene.

International pressure

Canadian citizenship might also make it easier for Badawi to leave the country when he gets out of prison. However, Miville-Dechene added, it's also important to remember that Saudi Arabia doesn't recognize dual nationality. "Nothing is certain," she told DW, "but at least it would give some hope."

A protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Berlin in May 2015
The Saudi Embassy in Berlin has been the site of several protests calling for Badawi's releaseImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

As yet Canadian Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino has not granted the request made by both houses of his parliament.

Badawi's lawyer, Cotler, said he had spoken to Mendicino about this: "He has taken account of all the reasons [why citizenship for Badawi would be good] so I am hoping they will move ahead with this." 

While in prison, Badawi has been given a number of different awards, including the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2015 and the DW Freedom of Speech award the same year. There is no doubt that his cause receives much international attention and that public pressure has mounted.

Do campaigns work?

Supporter groups around the world have held regular vigils, including virtual vigils during the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 17, a variety of events has been scheduled around the world to mark the ninth anniversary of Badawi's original arrest. These include a protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin organized by the local branch of Reporters Without Borders.

But does such public pressure really help the cause of Badawi, and other political prisoners like his own sister, activist Samar Badawi?

For instance, this week Saudi Arabia executed a 26-year-old, Mustafa al-Darwish, who had taken part in political protests in 2011 and 2012 when he was likely aged under 18. This was despite campaigning by international human rights organizations, calling upon the Saudi authorities not to use capital punishment on individuals who allegedly committed crimes as children.

"It is fair enough to be cynical," Cotler conceded. Nonetheless, he said he believes public pressure works, arguing that things would likely be worse for political prisoners everywhere, if there wasn't any.

Saudi-Arabien | Mustafa al-Darwish
Executed this week in Saudi Arabia: Mustafa al-DarwishImage: ESOHR

For example, part of Badawi's original punishment included 1,000 lashes. In January 2015, he was given the first batch of these in public, in front of a mosque. But, as Cotler pointed out, "there was such an international outcry after the first 50 lashes, that the rest of the punishment was not implemented and now," he added, referring to the fact that in early 2020 Saudi Arabia abolished flogging as a legal punishment, "it never will be."

Tipping points

Cotler also thinks that the change in US leadership — from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden — is helpful to the Badawi's cause, and those of other Saudi Arabian dissidents.

"President Biden has said that human rights will be factored into the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia," Cotler pointed out.

"In all the years, I have been involved with political prisoners, the changes don't come because an authoritarian regime suddenly finds an interest in, or understanding of, justice," the former Canadian justice minister concluded. "It is something they do in their own self-interest. That's the tipping point for them."

Developments such as these also give Badawi's wife, Haidar, some hope. "On behalf of my children, of Raif, and on my own behalf, we would be so happy if the Saudi royal family were to spare Raif the last months of his imprisonment and allow him to come to join the family that impatiently awaits him," she told DW. "We need his presence."

Ensaf Haidar: 'I will fight for Raif and free speech'

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East