RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Mohammad al-Qahtani usually talks to his family at 2 a.m., when his prison cell block in Saudi Arabia is quiet and his wife is making dinner for their five kids in their home in exile in Rochester, N.Y.
Every night, Qahtani, a human rights activist serving 10 years in prison for “questioning the integrity” of Saudi government officials, sings “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to his 2-year-old daughter, whom he has not seen since before he was imprisoned in March 2013.
“In this country, if you open your mouth, you end up in prison,” Qahtani, an academic with a PhD in economics from Indiana University, said in a telephone interview from his Riyadh lock-up.
The case of Raif Badawi, a blogger whose criticism of Saudi’s powerful religious leaders led to a sentence of 10 years in prison plus 1,000 lashes in public, has focused harsh international attention in the past week on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
But Badawi’s case is simply the most recent example of what rights groups call an intensifying campaign to punish activists, bloggers and anyone else who challenges the country’s political or religious leaders. People have been jailed for tweets, and two women have been held since early December for defying the ban on women driving.
“The government wants to send a message to the people: if you think like them, if you talk like them, you will spend all your life in the jail. They want to make an example of these people,” Samar Badawi, the blogger’s sister, who is also a human rights activist, said in a telephone interview from her home in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah.
Samar Badawi in 2012 received a U.S. State Department “International Women of Courage Award,” which was presented to her in Washington by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama. She has been especially affected by the government’s imprisonment in the past two years of at least a dozen activists for speech it deems criminal, but which would be considered harmless by Western standards. In addition to her brother, who angered authorities by saying the country’s religious establishment had too much influence, her husband, Waleed Abulkhair, has been in jail since April 2014.
Abulkhair, 35, is a human rights lawyer convicted of “disrespecting the authorities” and “disobeying the ruler” after he criticized the government’s rights record and founded a human rights organization. Abulkhair was originally sentenced to 10 years plus a fine of more than $250,000, but last week a Saudi judge increased the prison term to 15 years when Abulkhair refused to sign an apology and pledge to refrain from further dissent.
“I am happy that Waleed didn’t apologize, because he didn’t do anything wrong,” Samar Badawi said.
Still, she said, the government’s actions have silenced many activists. “People are afraid. Everyone is afraid. They cannot talk, they cannot move, they can’t do anything,” she said.
Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, has long been assailed for its human rights record, which the U.S. State Department says includes the use of torture and arbitrary detention.
The country also applies an especially strict form of sharia, which has resulted in the beheadings of at least 10 people so far this year, according to media reports.