Blogger Raif Badawi freed from Saudi prison, Quebec-based wife says

By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

After a decade in a Saudi prison, blogger and activist Raif Badawi was released Friday, his Quebec-based wife confirmed, but questions remain about when he will be permitted to join his family in Canada.

Ensaf Haidar, who lives with the couple’s three children in Sherbrooke, Que., tweeted that Badawi “is free.”

“#Raifisfree After 10 years in prison,” she wrote on Twitter.

Badawi’s supporters and family had been calling for Badawi’s release since his sentence expired on Feb. 28. Evelyne Abitbol, a spokesperson for the family, said it wasn’t clear what conditions remain for him.

“Raif is released from the prison walls but we have no indication as to the rest of the sentence,” Abitbol said in an email. “It is now up to the Canadian government to grant him safe passage or a travel document so that he can come and join his family here in Quebec.”

Last month, Montreal-based human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who represents Badawi internationally, said the release from prison had been expected sometime in March.

Cotler, a former federal justice minister and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, had warned that while his prison sentence was at an end, Badawi still faced a 10-year travel ban, a media ban and a punitive fine that was handed down at the time of sentencing.

“We’re talking about a kind of prison without walls where he’s deprived of travel for the next 10 years,” Cotler said at the time. “That would be continuing the punishment outside of prison that he was having inside prison _ the severe pain of being deprived of being with his wife and children.”

Badawi was jailed in 2012 and sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million Saudi riyal _ about $340,000 _ for criticizing the country’s clerics in his writings. He received 50 lashes in January 2015 during a public flogging, but he is not believed to have been whipped since.

Badawi’s sentence has drawn widespread international condemnation, and numerous organizations, governments and advocacy groups have called for his release over the years.

Cotler said Badawi’s writings call for a more open Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also personally advocated for a more moderate Islam.

In a letter addressed to the crown prince earlier this week, before word of his release, Cotler called for Badawi to be allowed to reunite with his family in Canada.

“Mr. Badawi was convicted for founding a website for peaceful, open dialogue,” Cotler wrote. “He poses no security concerns whatsoever. His only wish is to reunite with his family over 10,000 kilometres away ? so that he may live out his days as a devoted husband and father.”

Last year, both the House of Commons and Senate voted in favour of the immigration minister using his discretionary power to grant Badawi Canadian citizenship, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Bloc Quebecois MP Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe, who tabled that motion in 2021, said he jumped for joy at the news when Haidar, a Bloc candidate in the last election, called him before it was made public.

“You have to look at what Ensaf has done: she never let go. She has been fighting this fight for 10 years,” Brunelle-Duceppe said in a phone interview. “It’s the fight of a lifetime, I think. Today he is free. It’s thanks to his fight too.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly tweeted that “Canada is relieved to hear news that Raif Badawi has been released.”

Quebec Premier Francois Legault also welcomed the news.

“At last!” Legault wrote on Twitter. “I keep thinking about the children who will finally be reunited with their father.”

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