“For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. ... [The Saudi] faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.” – Raif Badawi, May 2012, shortly before his arrest
Raif Badawi, 31, and his sister Samar, 33, are human rights activists from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their mother, one of 14 wives, died of cancer when they were 11 and 13. The following year Samar began to run away to her uncles to escape her father’s beatings and verbal abuse. She was repeatedly returned home since her father was her guardian.
Samar married but their father continued to intervene in her life, which contributed to the end of her marriage. She moved in with Raif. The father brought suit against Samar for disobedience and she countersued that he refused to allow her to marry. She was jailed for six months before her guardianship was granted to an uncle. She married Walid Albukhair, her attorney who later represented Raif. Samar continued to fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and in 2012 was given an International Woman of Courage award from the U.S. State Department.
In 2002, Raif married Ensaf Haidar. He began a website, Liberal Saudi Network, to encourage social and political discussion on topics such as freedom of religion, free speech and women’s rights.
Raif was detained by Saudi authorities in 2008 on charges of apostasy (renunciation of a religion), which carries the death penalty, but he released after questioning. He left the country after being charged with having a website that insults Islam and returned after charges were dropped. The government then forbade him to leave the country. Ensaf’s parents went to court to try to forcibly have them divorced on the apostasy charges.
His comments questioning the religious establishment continued to drew the attention of authorities:
“As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics.” - August 2010
Raif was charged in 2011 with using electronic media to insult Islam and arrested in June 2012. His wife and three children sought political asylum in Quebec, Canada. In July 2013, Raif received a sentence of 7 years and 600 lashes for running a website which "violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought." The website was closed down. A charge of apostasy was added that December. The Washington Post wrote:
“He got two extra years in prison for ridiculing Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police. What did he say? According to Amnesty International, one of his articles thanked the morals cops ‘for teaching us virtue and for its eagerness to ensure that all members of the Saudi public are among the people of paradise.’ Satiric, certainly, but worthy of time in prison? Hardly. “
Raif appealed the sentence but lost. In May 2014, he was re-sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes to be administered over 20 weeks, and fined $266,000.
Two months later, his attorney, Walid Albukhair, was sentenced to 15 years for establishing Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi human rights organization. The court found Walid guilty of "undermining the regime and officials", "inciting public opinion," and "insulting the judiciary.” Samar is prohibited from leaving Saudi Arabia.
Raif’s first flogging was administered on January 9, 2015. Handcuffed and shackled, he was led to the center of a square in front of a mosque after Friday prayers. He was caned across the back and legs 50 times in 5 minutes. In a letter from prison, Raif wrote that he was “surrounded by a cheering crowd who cried incessantly ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great)’” during the whipping. He added, “All this cruel suffering happened to me because I expressed my opinion.”
Raif has not been flogged since because medical teams have said that he has not healed from the flogging. His wife said, “He’s in a poor condition. He suffers from high blood pressure but above all he is mentally very stressed.” Ensaf added that Raif said the international solidarity gives him renewed strength.
The United States, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Britain, the United Nations, and Amnesty International have all condemned the flogging. Saudi Arabia responded that it "does not accept any interference in its internal affairs." It said that its judiciary is impartial and independent, and the kingdom's constitution, based in Islamic law, ensures human rights.
It is possible that Raif may be tried for apostasy. While the criminal court lacks jurisdiction in capital cases, a new ruling by the Supreme Court now allows such jurisdiction. The case would be referred to the same judge who sentenced him.
Raif’s current legal representative is not a lawyer. In March 2015, at the request of his family, Lawyers Without Borders Canada and the Quebec Bar announced they would work to obtain Raif’s release. Lawyers Without Borders said, ”We will act based on Saudi law and applicable international law” in collaboration with his legal representative in Saudi Arabia.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post in April 2015, Ensaf wrote:
“Before his arrest, my husband wrote: ‘We want life for those who wish death to us; and we want rationality for those who want ignorance for us.’ I carry his words and his courage with me on the darkest and most hopeless days. Raif inspires me and compels me to keep raising my voice. I will not stop until my husband is free.”