Ensaf Haidar appears so slight, so diminutive, that you wonder how she will manage in the surging human crush that forms at rush hour around New York’s Penn Station, from where she is waiting to catch a train to Washington DC.
All the more striking, perhaps, given the unbending campaign she has led this past year to seek freedom for her husband, the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was arrested in 2012 – and who in January received the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he was sentenced as part of his punishment for apostasy.
“He is not doing well,” Ms Haidar says, sitting in a café close to the train station, when asked of her husband’s condition. “He is physically weak and not in a strong mental shape.”
And how is her health, her mental state? “Ask me when Raif is out. I will then tell you. Right now, I don’t know how I feel.”
Ms Haidar, who is currently living in Canada, where she was granted political asylum, has relentlessly lobbied the governments of Europe and other Western countries on behalf of her husband – who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence – urging them to speak directly with the Saudi leadership.
Her efforts, which have included writing a memoir – Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story – to be published next year by Little, Brown, have played out while juggling the task of raising the couple’s three young children, increasingly cognisant of their father’s absence. She keeps at it, one day at a time.
Having spoken at the New York offices of Amnesty International and met with commentators such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times on this sunny early-autumnal day, she will meet officials at the State Department and members of Congress, including Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, in Washington.
Mr McGovern, a Democrat and considered one of the most liberal members of the House, will pose for a picture with her in his office on Capitol Hill.
Throughout her campaign, Ms Haidar has adopted a constant but cautious line, appealing for her husband’s release but avoiding criticism of the Saudi rulers, or the conservative clerics who took offence at the comments her husband had written. She knows that a loose word or a misinterpreted comment could backfire.
“I keep the same tone that Raif uses. He is polite, he uses peaceful words. I have the same attitude and keep the same equilibrium,” she says.
The campaigners from Amnesty International, who are accompanying her to Washington and one of whom is acting as The Independent on Sunday’s translator, can afford to be a little more blunt.
Jasmine Heiss says Amnesty and other groups had urged President Barack Obama to raise the issue of human rights and the case of Mr Badawi and other prisoners when he met with the kingdom’s ruler, King Salman, earlier this month at the White House.
The State Department has in the past spoken of how it was “greatly concerned” by events such as the public flogging of Mr Badawi, but Ms Heiss says there was concern that the US government was putting oil and arms deals with Saudis ahead of human rights.
“We want the US government to call for Raif’s release and put that at the centre of its relationship with Saudi Arabia,” she says.
Yet, if Mr Obama were to be accused of putting matters such as weapons and oil ahead of human rights and transparency in his dealings with the Saudi monarchy, he would not be the first.
In 2006, Tony Blair halted a Serious Fraud Squad probe into claims that Britain’s biggest defence firm, BAE Systems, had paid bribes to secure an arms deal with Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.
BAE had always denied the accusation, but the decision to halt the investigation came as BAE was finalising a deal to sell 72 jets to the kingdom. (BAE later pleaded guilty in the US to charges of false accounting.)
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is vitally important for our country in terms of counter-terrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East, in terms of helping in respect of Israel and Palestine,” Mr Blair said of the decision at the time. “That strategic interest comes first.”
Against such stark political and strategic realities, Ms Haidar sticks to her message and focuses on the human side: that her husband has done nothing wrong and should be set free.
She says she is usually able to manage one or two phone calls with him each week. She tries in those fleeting moments to update him on their children, “who really miss their father a lot”.
The 36-year-old Ms Haidar is energetic and engaging, but she admits there are days of tears and frustration. She says “everything” about her husband’s incarceration, upheld by Saudi Arabia’s highest court this summer, is difficult. Everything is difficult for her husband, too.
However, she takes strength from the supporters and campaigners trying to help her and the realisation she is not entirely alone. She also tries to focus on what is at stake. “Sometimes I want to shout out. I’m sad, but I have to take care of things,” she says. “I have no choice but to continue.”Reuse content