RIYADH: The wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is allowing herself to dream: might the modernising new crown prince in her ultra-conservative homeland be about to free her husband?
Ensaf Haidar, the mother of the couple’s three children and wife of 16 years, recently heard from a delegation of European parliamentarians who visited Riyadh in late 2017 and asked about Badawi’s case.
The 34-year-old prisoner – who ran a blog that promoted free speech and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – was arrested, sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for “insulting Islam” in a case that sparked an international outcry in 2012.
After returning from meetings with human rights groups in Riyadh in November, European lawmaker Josef Weidenholzer phoned Haidar to tell her that her husband might be a candidate on a list of royal pardons.
“That’s what he told me, but I don’t know if it’s true,” Haidar told AFP in an interview in Paris.
Weidenholzer did not reply to messages when contacted and the head of the European delegation, former French defence minister Michele Alliot-Marie, declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the case.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing fast and unprecedented change since the emergence in June of 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince ─ and de facto leader ─ of the world’s oil superpower.
He has promised to create a “moderate” Muslim Saudi Arabia and battle fundamentalism, and the government has since issued highly symbolic decrees lifting bans on women driving and cinemas.
Among other domestic reforms, there have been moves to clip the power of the widely feared religious police and an anti-corruption drive that has led to the arrest of dozens of political and business figures.
“I have faith in Mohammed bin Salman because the prince is putting into practice Raif’s ideas,” said Haidar, who is originally from the southern Saudi region of Jazan.
“Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to modernise Saudi Arabia, Sharia law… that means that he wants to free prisoners of conscience and human rights campaigners too,” she said.
Other human rights groups are more cautious, however, pointing to continued arrests for dissent in the kingdom amid worries that the crown prince, known by his initials MBS, is an impulsive and authoritarian character.
There have been false hopes for Badawi before, notably in 2015 when a Swiss official said that he could be on a list of prisoners set to be pardoned by King Salman, who frees inmates every year during Ramadan.
A top official at the National Society for Human Rights in Riyadh told AFP that the group had visited Badawi in prison about a month ago.
“We hope that he is on a pardon list and that he is freed soon,” the official said, but he explained that Badawi’s father was a potential obstacle for his release.
Badawi senior has repeatedly supported punishing his son in TV interviews, and his blessing would be needed for him to be released early.
“This problem has to be fixed before he gets a royal pardon,” the official at the National Society for Human Rights said on condition of anonymity.
‘His children need him’
Haidar, who has been granted asylum by Canada and lives in the French-speaking province of Quebec, said she continued to speak to her husband two or three times a week when he calls on the public prison phone.
Conversations are short ─ around 15 minutes ─ and Badawi tells her little about the conditions of his detention.
“His spirits change,” she said. “It’s harder for Raif to keep believing. I believe because I see the world, social networks… governments that speak about Raif.”
While he remains behind bars more than five years after his arrest, Haidar is bringing up their children now aged 14, 13 and 10 as a single mother, but keeps up a campaign internationally to free her husband.
He received the first 50 of his 1,000 lashes in January of that year, but there has been no more following criticism from a host of Western countries and the United Nations.
While in Paris, Haidar hopes to hold meetings with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa.
She has also contacted the cabinet of President Emmanuel Macron, who will welcome Prince Mohammed to Paris in February.
Softly spoken but determined, only once does her composure crack during a conversation at the Maison d’Amerique Latine in the chic 7th Arrondissement of Paris.
When asked what message she would like to send to the Saudi leader, she chokes up as she recalls her children back in Canada who remember their father only from photographs and are growing up without him.
“I would like to say to Mohammed bin Salman that he should pardon my husband because his children need him,” she said.