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Ensaf Haidar, center, takes part in a demonstration calling for the release of her husband, Raif Badawi, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 29, 2015. (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

In censored Saudi Arabia, Raif Badawi filled a journalistic void

By Jason Stern/CPJ Middle East and North Africa Research Associate on June 17, 2015 4:34 PM ET

On the third anniversary of the arrest of liberal activist and writer Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, his supporters all over the world are working hard to prevent what may lay ahead: the completion of a 10-year, thousand-lash sentence. To be effective in changing Badawi's future, it is important to take inspiration from his past, as he stood steadfast by his beliefs despite the adversity he faced and repeated opportunities to choose an easier path.

The Saudi Liberals online discussion forum founded by Badawi in 2006 started off modestly. Its goal, according to a media interview Badawi gave in 2007, was to create a space in Saudi Arabia to discuss the need for a liberal reform agenda on every level, from the religious and cultural to the religious and political.

That space he created for online expression took on greater importance in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most censored countries, than it would in a place where a free press could operate independently enough to facilitate such discussion. So while not a journalist himself, Badawi was in effect filling a void where journalists would normally operate and, as a result, faced the same legal pressures Saudi journalists routinely face.

By 2008, Badawi's forum had over 1,000 registered members regularly discussing religion and politics. Sometimes the conversation turned to deeply sensitive issues that struck right to the legitimacy of the Saudi regime, which relies on the twin pillars of religious Wahhabism and tribal authoritarianism to maintain power.

It was the kind of discussion that could land someone in jail. So, not surprisingly, many members used pseudonyms like "Dreamer," "Free Pen," "Rain," and "The Adviser" to protect their identity. But not Badawi, whose profile showed he was the first to register for the site.

One discussion thread posted on February 25, 2008 by "Abu Banghal" (whose writing would later be cited as evidence of blasphemy in the sentencing decision against Badawi) asked whether Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, who served as Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia until his death in 1999, believed the earth was flat and that the sun orbited the earth (he was eventually convinced otherwise after a Saudi prince went to space in 1985). Badawi, one of the few using a real name, intervened in the discussion with a comment that the Grand Mufti and other Wahhabi sheikhs were causing the stagnation of society by insisting they owned the truth.

The next month, Saudi authorities moved to shut down the forum, according to Human Rights Watch. Badawi was arrested and interrogated for a day before being released. In May 2008, days after Badawi left the country fearing arrest, he was charged with setting up a website that insulted Islam, which carried a potential five-year sentence. The website's front page apologized to the "brothers and sisters" who participated in the forum, which had to be closed permanently for "private reasons." The Saudi Liberals forum, once a center for debate, was no more.

Badawi returned to Saudi Arabia later that year after prosecutors decided not to pursue the charges, but authorities nonetheless imposed a travel ban and froze his assets in 2009, according to Human Rights Watch. While the episode could have served as an excuse to stop his activities, Badawi viewed it as a temporary setback. As he described on Facebook in October 2010, "I am sure that I do not regret what I have done and that there are free people in my nation who stand in the face of injustice and appreciate all those who fight with words for the sake of a better tomorrow."

They were not empty words. That year, Badawi and his partners created a new online forum, The Free Saudi Liberal Network. The new, sleeker site would quickly eclipse the success of its predecessor, collecting tens of thousands of registered members. By 2011, some discussion threads were amassing more than 20,000 views. Posts spanned beyond theological questions to politics writ large, especially as the Arab uprisings sprung up across the entire region in the spring of 2011.

Part of the Free Saudi Liberal Network's success likely came from the explosion of Internet users in the country. When Badawi founded his first website in 2006, 19% of Saudi citizens used the Internet, according to the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union. When it closed two years later, that number had risen to 36%. By his arrest in 2012, 54% of Saudis were using the Internet.

The network's success also came as part of a regional wave of excitement about the potential for change after decades of political stagnation, to which Saudi Arabia was not immune. In the Shia-majority Eastern Province, mass protests erupted for greater representation and civil rights. Khaled al-Johani held a one-man protest in the center of Riyadh, telling media "we need democracy, we need freedom" before being arrested. Many women protested the ban on female drivers by filming themselves driving, and some, including Manal al-Sharif, were arrested as a result. Women also pushed for the right to vote in local municipal elections, eventually forcing King Abdullah to grant them that right for the 2015 elections. Badawi's sister Samar played a leading role in both the driving and suffrage campaigns.

But the Saudi government pushed back against those who sought change. With one hand, it boosted domestic spending by billions of U.S. dollars to buy stability through acquiescence. With the other, it crushed opposition through arrests and a series of new laws and regulations that ensured it had all the tools of censorship it needed to control dissent. The government also leaned on its stalwart conservative religious allies in attempt to encourage public obedience.

So just as the Free Saudi Liberal Network gained steam, it was on a collision course with the Saudi regime. In 2011, prosecutors once again accused Badawi of infringing upon Islamic values through his website, according to news reports. In March 2012, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak issued a fatwa declaring Badawi an unbeliever. In a series of social media posts around that time, Badawi spoke of the increasing threats he was facing, of the travel ban he was still under, of imposters posing as him on social media, and of likely denial of service attacks against the network. The stakes were high. At the time, Saudi columnist Hamza Kashgari sat in a jail cell facing a potential death penalty on charges of insulting the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Kashgari had fled the country in an attempt to seek asylum, but in February 2012, Malaysian authorities detained and deported him back to Saudi Arabia.

Badawi responded to the hostility with magnanimity. On Facebook, he wrote, "Who wishes me death, I will wish him a long life. And who wishes me imprisonment, I will wish him freedom." Meanwhile, his activism continued apace. A week after the fatwa, the forum under the co-leadership of female activist Souad al-Shammary joined a regional network of like-minded Arab liberals. Badawi and al-Shammary then turned their focus to May 7, a planned day of action for Saudi liberals, using the website as a platform to push the liberal agenda forward.

His stature growing, Badawi also became an increasingly common presence in traditional media and had begun writing columns for local websites like Al-Jazirah and Al-Bilad about the principles of secular, liberal thought and how to apply it to the Saudi context. In one article published in August 2010 for Ahewar, an Arabic website for secular commentary, Badawi wrote "Freedom of expression is the air a thinker breathes, just as it is the fuel that lights the fire of his ideas." In one of the last articles for Al-Jazirah before his arrest, Badawi called to not blindly follow the Western model but to adopt the features of Saudi identity that are consistent with the "fundamental principles of liberalism."

On June 17, 2012, the Saudi government arrested Badawi. After three years of trials, appeals and retrials, Badawi's sentence stands final: 10 years imprisonment, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals (approximately US$267,000) and a 10-year ban on travel and media activity to begin after his release. According to English translations of court documents provided to CPJ by his family, Badawi received five years for the establishment of a website that hosted blasphemous commentary and another five years for a series of Facebook posts the court also deemed blasphemous.

Only one of the so-called blasphemous posts on the website cited by the court was written by Badawi. Reposted in February 2008 in another online forum, Badawi congratulates the people of the world for celebrating Valentine's Day while congratulating, tongue-in-cheek, the Saudis for having the religious police to ensure the people's virtue.

Today both websites established by Badawi are permanently closed, the discussion threads in them deleted. But not everything was lost, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, a tool that saves snapshots of websites over time, including the Saudi Liberals forum and the Free Saudi Liberal Network. But the Wayback Machine only catches so much, with many images lost, links broken, and threads missing. Most of the posts and data cited in this article were accessed through the tool. Viewing the sites through the Wayback Machine feels like walking through a ghost town, where the structures are standing but the life that once filled them are no more.

The closure of the sites was a tremendous loss for free expression in Saudi Arabia--one of several as the government continued to target activists, lawyers, and journalists alike. Liberal Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad, whose work was featured on Badawi's forums, was arrested in December 2012 after his tweets deemed critical to Islam sparked an outrage. He was released in June 2013, never having been brought to trial. Badawi's Free Saudi Liberal Network partner al-Shammary was eventually arrested in late 2014 over the accusation of insulting Islam on Twitter. She was released early this year. Badawi's own lawyer and brother-in-law, Waleed Abulkhair, was also arrested in 2014 and eventually sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on anti-state charges. He remains in jail.

For her part, Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, tirelessly advocates for her husband's release from Canada, where she and their three children were granted asylum. After the Supreme Court upheld Badawi's sentence on June 7 this year, Haidar told CPJ Advisory Board member Christiane Amanpour that she hopes that the newly crowned King Salman will intervene to help her husband. A pardon or commutation by the king are Badawi's best hopes.

For now, Badawi remains in jail, awaiting 19 more sessions of 50 lashes each. But he was never naïve about the obstacles he would face when he launched Saudi Liberals in 2006. As his last tweet on the day of his arrest reads: "Liberalism is the path we have chosen, and we will continue the journey even to the last day of our lives."

  • To support Raif Badawi, like the official #FreeRaif Facebook page and sign the Amnesty International petition calling on the Saudi government to end Badawi's public lashing.

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