Skip to main content

Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi, and their 10 year old son Tirad, pose in their home, as a large banner with her husband's image, hangs on the wall behind them, in Sherbrooke, Quebec, January 14, 2015. Badawi, a Saudi liberal was convicted of publishing a blog and was sentenced to a 10 year jail term along with 1000 lashes, the second set of 50 lashes due this Friday.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Ensaf Haidar stood beside the kitchen table, urging her three children to eat. Newspapers featuring her husband's face on the front were spread in the spaces between three pizza boxes, and a banner covering most of the wall showed him as well, with several dozen signatures of those who attended a #FreeRaif vigil in Montreal.

"All he did was blog," his wife said through an interpreter in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. "Until the last moment, I couldn't believe it. I kept telling him it wasn't going to happen. It's impossible, it doesn't seem real."

In Saudi Arabia, her husband Raif Badawi, 32, was preparing for the second 50 of his 1,000 lashes on Friday – but, as it turned out, that punishment was postponed, after a doctor concluded he had not sufficiently recovered from the first floggings administered Jan. 9. And according to Ms. Haidar, the Saudi government referred the case to the country's supreme court, suggesting international pressure might be having an effect.

But Ms. Haidar isn't holding her breath: "I won't stop [fighting] until Raif is free."

As it stands, Mr. Badawi is to receive 50 lashes every Friday for 19 more weeks after prayers in front of a mosque in Jeddah, a city on the coast of the Red Sea. He was convicted of insulting Islam and religious figures on his blog, the Saudi Liberal Network, and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 10-year order not to leave the kingdom and not to practise journalism after that. He faces a fine of about $319,000.

Word of Mr. Badawi's plight has spread around the world, and vigils were held from Montreal to Denmark since the popular blogger received the first phase of his punishment.

Ms. Haidar feels his pain, and her own. "Since the day I left Saudi Arabia, the day I left my husband, I have had no stability," she said in her small, tidy apartment in Sherbrooke on Wednesday.

Ms. Haidar and her three children, Najwa, 11, Tirad, 10, and Myriam, 7, moved to Canada last fall as refugees. Before that, pushed by a series of threats from extremists, the family first fled to Egypt, where they lived for eight months, then Lebanon for three years. Mr. Badawi has been subject to a travel ban since 2008.

Canada was the first of several countries where Ms. Haidar applied for asylum. She's grateful for the support her family has received here, but that she'll only have peace of mind once Mr. Badawi is released. "It's so difficult, but I always have hope."

Ms. Haidar says that, even for a country known for its severe prosecution of those who contradict it, her husband's sentence is extreme. Saudi journalists are usually shielded from such convictions with the help of a dedicated ministry, she explained.

The massacre at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo cast her husband's sentence in a different light, and may have contributed to the attention paid to it. Saudi officials denounced the killings, calling the acts "cowardly" and saying "Islam as well as other religions reject" them. Yet, Mr. Badawi's sentence is a clear Saudi crackdown on free speech.

Ms. Haidar said she laughed "at the irony, the hypocrisy – it's obvious."

All three children now know the extent of their father's sentence. As classmates began to learn about the case, it became impossible to withhold the more disturbing details. But trips to Toronto to collect a humanitarian award bestowed upon their father seem to ease their sorrow by acknowledging his courage.

He's always been defiant, Ms. Haidar said. "He was never afraid of giving his opinion."

Mr. Badawi's troubles with the kingdom began shortly after he established his website in 2008. The government soon caught wind of it and took it down. He was ordered not to leave the kingdom, and his company – which taught languages and computer science – was terminated, Ms. Haidar said.

So Mr. Badawi began working as a freelance journalist, writing for various Saudi newspapers until he was arrested in 2011, a month after Ms. Haidar and the children had moved to Lebanon.

Several trials led to three different verdicts that held his fate in limbo between execution and long-term imprisonment. The first commanded his execution for apostasy, abandoning a faith. It was appealed and, instead, he was given 600 lashes and seven years in prison in July, 2013. A complaint from his father to the government led to the third and current verdict, Ms. Haidar said, which includes three extra months in prison for "parental disobedience."

Amnesty International and other organizations have called on Canada to pressure Saudi Arabia to release Mr. Badawi. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has condemned the penalty as a "violation of human dignity and freedom of expression. … While Mr. Badawi is not a Canadian citizen, we will continue to make our position known, both publicly and through diplomatic channels."

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada's English division, said the statement was welcome, but that he'd like Mr. Baird to build on it by "very explicitly calling for an end to the floggings" and for Mr. Badawi to be "freed unconditionally."

For Ms. Haidar, who holds an Islamic studies degree from a Saudi university, her husband's plight, and the harshness of his sentence, is taking a toll.

"Why does it have to be so ugly?" she said. "Why should he get whipped?"

Interact with The Globe