Inside Raif Badawi’s Prison Cell

An Exclusive in The Gad About Town

Raif Badawi is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent prisoners—a political prisoner, certainly, a young blogger who was convicted of insulting Islam in his essays on his web site and then flogged as a part of that punishment; but other than a 750-word article that he dictated over the telephone to serve as an introduction to his book, “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think,” he has not been heard from in years. His face is known to millions, and sentences from his eloquent writings are seen on thousands of placards and internet memes celebrating freedom of speech, but he is in danger of being reduced to a symbol.

One of my sources in the “Free Raif Badawi” movement shared with me this weekend a glimpse inside Raif Badawi’s current prison existence. This source requested anonymity but encouraged the writing of this article, and I will reveal neither the name nor even the gender of the source. This individual has indirect contact with Raif Badawi and communicates regularly with two other sources inside the prison complex in which Raif Badawi is now being held. We will not betray any information that can compromise Raif Badawi’s security or condition, so I can not quote Raif Badawi directly. I myself have not had contact with Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi is a man as well as an icon in the ongoing fight for human rights, but he is a human being first—a young man, a husband, a father, and a prisoner held at Dhahban Central Prison, north of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He was moved to Dhahban in December 2015 at least in part because of how internationally prominent his case has become.

Dhahban is a prison in which Saudi Arabia’s justice system holds its more prominent prisoners: those convicted of being terrorists, of being members of Al Qaeda or ISIS. And, also, Raif Badawi and his lawyer, the human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair, who is also married to Raif’s sister, Samar Badawi.

It is a more tightly controlled prison compared to Raif’s previous location. It was reported to me that Raif Badawi is well-fed and is in good health, generally, but it is a harsher prison, and this is taking a toll on him and has strained his mental health. At Dhahban Central, prisoners are under orders to pray towards Mecca twice a day—and the guards make certain that everyone does.

The arid air north of Jeddah is difficult to breathe for Raif, which is something new that he has had to deal with since he was moved to Dhahban. My source has at least two sources for each piece in this this admittedly limited collection of details about Raif Badawi’s day-to-day life at Dhahban Central.

It is probable that Raif Badawi does not know the full size and scope of the “Free Raif” movement that has grown around him, his image as an icon of the Arab Spring, and his writings in the last several years, that he only knows what he has been told, and that what he has been told is limited.

Lacking information or even rumors of information, Raif Badawi started hunger strikes on multiple occasions this past winter.

Last November, Yves Rossier, Switzerland’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, told a Swiss newspaper, La Liberté, that Raif Badawi’s sentence has been suspended.

“A royal pardon is in the works thanks to the head of state, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,” Rossier informed the world. No one has pursued an update from M. Rossier about this claim. It was soon after M. Rossier shared this that Raif Badawi was moved to his current location, however. Whether the pardon is real or will be a reality is unknown. What is known is that Raif Badawi remains a prisoner and the threat of continued lashings remains as well.

Is Raif Badawi’s future freedom a game piece in a contest between Saudi Arabia and its global reputation? Is there a perfect moment for the country to release him that I am as deaf to as the others covering the Raif Badawi story?

There are several issues that possibly rank ahead of human rights—and one man’s awful corporal punishment, a whipping, for writing, and his all-important freedom—on the list of concerns that complicate the relationship between Saudi Arabia and other nations. The ongoing war in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia is backing the government in a fight against rebels, is notorious, leading to atrocities, and is in danger of becoming Saudi Arabia’s version of America’s involvement in Vietnam. That is one. Saudi Arabia’s use of the “fight against terrorism and ISIS” as an excuse to round up those it declares to be dissidents is another.

What is one man’s freedom worth, after all?

Raif Badawi is a symbol; for much of the world, his is the face of the Arab Spring. In his essays, he compares the Arab Spring to the French Revolution, and his comparison is not extreme. His ongoing imprisonment—and the sight of him being whipped last January 9, 2015—is the image of what governments want to do with the Arab Spring. President Obama will be in Riyadh this week, on April 21, and will be meeting with King Salman. Raif Badawi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year; Barack Obama won it in 2009. Perhaps some symbolic moments await.

* * * *
The following pieces have appeared in The Gad About Town concerning Raif Badawi:

 March 25, 2016: A New Prize for Raif Badawi
 April 11, 2016: #ReadRaif: Now More than Ever
 January 26, 2016: Raif Badawi’s Hunger Strike
 January 9, 2016: One Year After He Was Flogged, Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
 December 16: Badawi’s Absence Is a Presence at Prize Ceremony
 December 11: A Cloud of Uncertainty
 October 29: Winner of the Sakharov Prize
 September 14: Award Raif Badawi the Nobel Peace Prize
August 18: Tortured
June 17: Three Years in Prison for Blogging
June 10: An Urgent Need for Action
June 7: A Sense of Injustice
June 1: Speak out for Those Who Can’t
May 7: Ignite the Light
April 3: We Want Life
March 13: Raif Badawi and Official Cruelty
March 6: Raif Badawi Remains a Prisoner
February 20: 1000 Days
February 6: #FreeRaif, Week 5
January 31: Raif Badawi, Week 3
January 22: An Update about Raif Badawi
January 12: For Raif Badawi

* * * *
A Recording
This winter, I recorded myself reading one essay from Raif Badawi’s book, “1000 Lashes Because I Say What I Think.” The mic on this laptop is not strong, and my voice … well, there I am holding a copy of the book. Get yourself a copy of the book. I have intentions to record more of his essays.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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