Wife of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi worries for his safety after foreign relations breakdown

“The level of persecution for activists in the Saudi Arabia at the moment is unprecedented.”

‘I’ve been waiting for 6 years,’ Ensaf Haidar says. ‘I don’t know when I will be able to stop waiting’

Ensaf Haidar, Raif Badawi’s wife, in her apartment in Sherbrooke, Que., in March. She calls Sherbrooke home and Raif has been given honorary citizenship by Sherbrooke and Montreal. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Ensaf Haidar, the wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, says she’s worried about what will happen to her husband now that Saudi Arabia is expelling Canada’s ambassador.

The move comes after Canada criticized the country for its arrest of women’s rights and civil society activists, including Badawi and his sister Samar, who was arrested last week.

The country is also freezing all trade and investment transactions with Canada.

“It’s alarming news to me. It came as a surprise,” Haidar told CBC News Sunday night, saying she still isn’t certain what impact the dispute will have on her husband’s situation.

“I don’t know what’s going on.”

She said she hopes Canada will continue to pressure Saudi Arabia on human rights abuses, including her husband’s case.

​The Saudi government gave the Canadian Embassy 24 hours to vacate, and its staff to leave the country, in reaction to a tweet by Global Affairs Canada on Friday.

Another obstacle in her fight

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists,” the tweet said.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said on Twitter Sunday that it now considers Canada’s ambassador, Dennis Horak, “persona non grata.”

For Haidar, it’s one more obstacle in her fight to free her husband.

“I’ve been waiting for six years. My [three] children have been waiting for six years. I’m always waiting and, unfortunately, I don’t know when I will be able to stop waiting,” she said.

What now? 

Geneviève Paul, an official with Amnesty International, said Saudi Arabia’s reaction should not cause Canadian foreign affairs officials to buckle.

“We shouldn’t cave in,” Paul said in an interview on CBC Montreal’s Daybreak Monday morning. “The level of persecution for activists in the country at the moment is unprecedented.”

She said she was aware Canadian officials had exercised a significant amount of “silent diplomacy,” including phone calls and closed door meetings with Saudi officials, to no avail.

“It is also important to speak out and, clearly, the aggressive response from the Saudi government shows that they’re well aware that they have serious human rights problems.”

Paul called the move by Global Affairs Canada, which is headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, “justified and necessary.”

Former MP and international human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who has been advocating for Badawi’s release, says he believes a “mobilization” of countries will soon come out in support of Canada and that the Saudi Arabian kingdom will come to “realize that it’s hurting them in the international community as well as at home.”

He says the move by the kingdom, which includes calling Saudi Arabia’s exchange students in Canada to come home, is “self-defeating and appears to be an expression of a hypocritical public policy.” Canada’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak said there are about 16,000 Saudi students in Canada.

Irwin Cotler is a former Canadian Minister of Justice and the founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. He has been advocating for the release of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The imprisonment of activists like the Badawis, Cotler said, is contrary to the very reforms Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been promoting in Saudi Arabia, including women’s right to drive — something Samar Badawi had called for.

Cotler pointed out that the country has so far not cut diplomatic ties, so Canada could continue to advocate on behalf of human rights.

With the tweet, Cotler said, “Canada is effectively saying, ‘We support what you are seeking to do, Mr. Crown Prince, with regard to a reformist Saudi Arabia but you are breaching your own undertakings both personally and internationally.'”

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup
Raif Badawi, who received a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after he criticized Saudi Arabia’s clerics on a liberal blog he founded.
The case of Raif Badawi, a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia, is at the heart of a diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada following the arrest of his activist sister, Samar.

In May 2014, a Saudi court convicted Badawi of insulting Islam for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics on a liberal blog he founded. In January 2015, he received 50 lashes before a crowd of hundreds in Jiddah. Further floggings were suspended, though he remains imprisoned.



Badawi’s case became an international call to arms for human rights groups, Western nations and others concerned about free speech. The U.S. State Department and the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights have called on the kingdom to rescind the sentence. Badawi’s wife and three children later moved to Canada, and she became a Canadian citizen this year.



Saudi Arabia long has been sensitive to international pressure over the Badawi sentence. In 2015, the kingdom recalled its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing work visas for Swedes after the Scandinavian country’s foreign minister described the Badawi court decision as “medieval” and the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family as presiding over a “dictatorship.”



The arrest reported last week of the writer’s sister, Samar Badawi, prompted the Canadian government to tweet about the case. She is a famed women’s right activist who has been arrested previously by authorities. She was honoured by the U.S. State Department in 2012 with an International Women in Courage Award.



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