Saudi blogger Raif Badawi recently began a new hunger strike after nearly eight years in prison. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, is calling for his release and says people are becoming more courageous in Saudi Arabia.
It was Raif Badawi's outspokenness that landed him in court in 2013. After criticizing the role of religion in Saudi Arabia, the young blogger and journalist was initially sentenced to death. Later, his punishment was reduced to a 10-year jail term, a fine and 1,000 lashes.
Badawi had not only criticized Wahhabism, the state religion in Saudi Arabia, but also the power of clerics in the country. The court ruled that he had insulted Islam. Five years ago, he was subjected to the first set of 50 lashes.
"We have been separated from Raif for eight years. My children and I miss him," Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, who lives in exile in Canada, told DW. "But we believe that his heart is close to us. That helps."
She says she hopes her husband will soon be reunited with his family. Badawi has not been flogged since that first time — the next set of lashes was postponed.
Last June, Ensaf Haidar attended a ceremony in Badawi's stead after he won the Günter Wallraff Critical Journalism Award. Several years ago, she herself helped to create the Ralf Badawi Award for courageous reporting, which honors journalists who draw attention to human rights abuses in the Muslim world.
Hunger strike against arbitrary judiciary
On December 11, Badawi began a hunger strike while in solitary confinement. Haidar said that she had only been able to speak to him for one minute. It was not the first time — he had previously gone on hunger strike earlier last year.
This time, he is striking with his lawyer Waleed Abulkhair, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2014 after being accused of working against the regime and its official representatives. The two were joined in their hunger strike on December 22 by human rights activist Khaled al-Omair, who was arrested after making a complaint against an officer whom he accused of torturing him during an eight-year prison term. In October, al-Omair was informed that there would be no further trials or hearings. He was not given a list of charges and his jail term this time is indefinite. Others on hunger strike include the 69-year-old poet Abdullah al-Hamid, who is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.
Ensaf Haidar says the solidary she has seen in the media for her husband's plight gives her the energy to fight for his release. She told DW that both established media outlets as well as social media have helped publicize the case: "Even the US vice president, Mike Pence, and a delegation from the European Parliament have called on the government in Saudi Arabia to release Raif, a nonviolent prisoner of conscience." She says that kind of support gives her courage. Amnesty International recently called for Badawi's immediate and unconditional release.
Human rights deteriorating in Saudi Arabia
Despite relative improvements in civil liberties in Saudi Arabia, with women now being allowed to drive and travel abroad without having to seek permission from a male guardian, the human rights situation has actually worsened in the past two years.
According to Human Rights Watch, there has been a distinct change since June 2017, when Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince, making him next in line to the throne.
"Detaining citizens for peaceful criticism of the government's policies or human rights advocacy is not a new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia, but what has made the post-2017 arrest waves notable and different, however, is the sheer number and range of individuals targeted over a short period of time as well as the introduction of new repressive practices not seen under previous Saudi leadership," the human rights watchdog wrote in a report last November.
It added that long-term arbitrary detention was more common and that "torture and mistreatment of detainees were rampant." It also said that it had received "credible information from informed sources that authorities had tortured four prominent Saudi women activists while in an unofficial detention center, including by administering electric shocks, whipping the women on their thighs, forcible hugging and kissing, and groping."
'People are becoming more courageous'
Despite all this, Haidar says protests in Saudi Arabia are becoming more frequent: "Many people have become more courageous and active with regard to human rights and women's rights." She says that she has called on the government to grant citizens more rights.
Raif Badawi might not have acted in vain but this does not make it any easier for his wife. "Everything that Raif demanded — more rights for women, the re-opening of cinemas and theaters — all this has now become a reality," she says. "Yet, he is still in jail. I don't understand."