The reports that Saudi activist and blogger Raif Badawi may face an imminent retrial and the possibility of execution remain unsubstantiated but are still devastating, a family friend told VICE News.
On Sunday, Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar contacted VICE News to say that her husband may again be facing the death penalty for apostasy. This is punishable under Saudi law by beheading.
Later that day, the family released a statement saying that they had become aware that attempts are being made in the Saudi penal court to retry Badawi on apostasy charges, and that the same judge who previously sentenced the blogger to 1,000 lashes would hear his case again. The family claim that this judge is "biased," and has already stated that he is confident Badawi is an apostate — a charge Badawi was cleared of in 2013.
On Monday, Dr. Elham Manea, spokeswoman for the Badawi family, noted that the Saudi judicial process lacks transparency, and told VICE News that the family is being supplied with information from several sources "close to the court" who admire and sympathize with Badawi. Upon hearing the latest reports, Manea said, the family quickly moved to publish them "before they become a reality," in the hope that highlighting the developments can stop them from happening. "That shows again the absurdity and how arbitrary this judiciary system is," Manea added.
Manea told VICE News that the family's court sources must be kept anonymous for security purposes, but their existence "shows again and again that the issue is not as straightforward as people would like us to believe."
She added: "Raif Badawi has support in Saudi Arabia, even within the government and the diplomats. And there are many that believe that this is a witch hunt to show leadership in this regard."
The government still has the power to stop any retrial, and indeed to free Badawi outright, according to Manea. "If the interior minister decided to release him today he would be released within two hours," she said.
"Right now we are hoping that the Saudi government will recognize that this is a witch hunt," Manea said. "I think it's very obvious to many that a retrial on these charges again will be an embarrassment for the Saudi government itself."
The family friend also elaborated on the impact that the news had on Haidar and the couple's children, who are "devastated."
"Imagine she and her children, they thought they had that over at least," Manea said, referring to the possibility of him facing the death penalty. The family had begun to focus their efforts on getting Badawi released, "and instead right now it seems to be like going back to ground zero. And from ground zero again the fear of the death penalty."
Badawi was first whipped on January 9 in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah, following that morning's prayers. He has not been flogged since — initially as a result of medical advice, though the reasons for the more recent postponements remain unknown.
The campaign to free Badawi has steadily gained traction since early January. An Amnesty International petition has gained over 1 million signatures, protests have been held around the world, and illustrator Aseem Trivedi has begun to publish a series of 50 cartoons titled "A cartoon against every lash." Last week, Badawi received both the Geneva Summit's "Courage" award and Deutsche Welle's first "Freedom of Speech" award.
When asked about the possibility that international pressure could be hindering Badawi's case, Manea pointed out that while the recent interest has been phenomenal, his case took a long time to get noticed by the public. "He been languishing in prison for three years and everyone was silent about it," Manea said. "There was no campaign. There were silent diplomatic efforts from many Western governments and it didn't work."
Saudi Arabia follows strict Islamic law, and punishments can include public beheadings and amputations. Judges have a wide scope for deciding sentences. An unnamed Saudi man was sentenced to death for apostasy and insulting Allah as recently as Saturday, according to local reports.
Badawi was initially imprisoned after setting up the "Liberal Saudi Network," an online forum which he used to discuss religion and which has since been taken down. In his writings, he said he believes that secularism is necessary to create a developed country, praised the 2011 Egypt revolution, and linked al Qaeda to Saudi Arabia. "States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear," he wrote in a blog post denouncing Hamas.
Sara Hashash from Amnesty International told VICE News that the "rumors" that Badawi might face a retrial on apostasy charges were based on a formal communication sent last week between the Saudi criminal court and the appeals court, but noted that the actual contents of this remain unknown. "We don't have any clarity of what this is or what it might mean," she said.
"I think it's difficult at the moment to say what's going on without clarity about what his legal status is and what the legal status of a retrial is," Hashash continued. "But whatever is going on, as far as Amnesty International is concerned, we're calling for him to be immediately and unconditionally released because he's a prisoner of conscience who should never have been charged in the first place.
"He shouldn't be in prison let alone being flogged or having to go through unnecessary suffering," Hashash concluded.
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