Ensaf Haidar, wife of blogger Raif Badawi, arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Sherbrooke, Que., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Haidar, who lives with the couple's children in Sherbrooke, Que., tweeted Friday that Badawi had been released from prison. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi free after 10 years but hurdles remain to see family

Jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi free after 10 years but hurdles remain to see family

MONTREAL — 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., said she was relieved and happy her husband was free. In an interview, she said Badawi called her to inform her of his release.

“I had dreamed of this day for a long time,” she said, adding that she and her children were overcome by the news. His family and supporters had been calling for his release since his sentence expired on Feb. 28.

Évelyne Abitbol, a spokesperson for the family, said it wasn’t clear what conditions remained for Badawi, who was jailed in 2012 and sentenced two years later for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s religious ruling class.

“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 Badawi would be in a sort of “prison without walls” as he still faces a 10-year travel ban, a media ban and a punitive fine that was handed down at the time of sentencing.

“While we await further information on the conditions of his release, we hope that Saudi authorities will compassionately allow for his reunification with his wife and young children in Canada, who have been deprived of their husband and father for 10 years,” Cotler said in a statement on Friday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was relieved that Badawi has finally been released.

“My thoughts are with his family and friends who have been tirelessly advocating for him for nearly a decade,” Trudeau said on Twitter. “Our officials are now working to seek clarity on the conditions of his release.”

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 Québécois 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 federal 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 Mélanie Joly tweeted that “Canada is relieved to hear news that Raif Badawi has been released.”

Quebec Premier François 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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2022.

— with files from Emilie Bergeron in Ottawa.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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