Canadian advocates of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi hopeful for release

By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

Supporters of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi say they’re hopeful he’ll soon be freed from prison after serving a 10-year sentence and be allowed by officials in that country to reunite with his family in Canada.

Human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who has represented Badawi internationally since 2014, says discussions between European Union and Saudi representatives have given rise to hopes the blogger will be released within days.

But he adds that there needs to be pressure to allow Badawi to join his wife and children living in Quebec. While his prison sentence will have ended, Badawi will still face a 10-year travel ban, a media ban and a punitive $335,000 fine that was handed down at the time of the sentence.

“We’re talking about a kind of prison without walls where he’s deprived of travel for the next 10 years,” said Cotler, a former federal justice minister and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

“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 for criticizing the country’s clerics.

He received 50 lashes in January 2015 during a public flogging but is not believed to have been whipped since. Cotler said he doesn’t fear additional flogging for his client as the Saudi Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 2020.

His wife, Ensaf Haidar, has been counting down to the anticipated release date on her Twitter account. She and the couple’s three children have lived in Sherbrooke, Que. since 2013.

“I hope he will be released as scheduled according to the Islamic calendar on Feb. 28,” Haidar told The Canadian Press by social media message.

Badawi’s sentence has drawn widespread international condemnation and numerous organizations, governments and advocacy groups have called for his release. Cotler said the writings for which Badawi was jailed, promoting human rights and democracy, are in line with reforms that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been advocating the past five years: namely calling for a more open Saudi Arabia and a more moderate Islam.

“At this point, I would say it’s in Saudi Arabia’s own interest to allow him to be released and reunited with his family,” Cotler said. “In other words, it’s not only the just thing to do, but in terms of Saudi Arabia, it would be in its own political, economic and national interest to do so.”

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.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said in a statement that it could not comment specifically on Badawi’s case, due to privacy.

“The government of Canada is very concerned by the case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia,” the department said in an email. “We have consistently advocated on his behalf and will continue to use every opportunity to do so. His well-being is foremost in our minds.”

Cotler said he’s had discussions with the foreign affairs and immigration ministers regarding that file. He said Canadian citizenship would allow the country to make diplomatic representations on Badawi’s behalf.

Amnesty International’s Canadian francophone branch said that from the information they have, Badawi could be released between Feb. 28 and March 3 or otherwise in June, depending which calendar is used to calculate his sentence. In any case, they are hopeful for a timely release, based on the release of other jailed dissidents last year upon the expiry of their sentences, including Badawi’s own sister.

But the decision ultimately lies with the Saudi Arabian government, said Colette Lelièvre, campaign director for the human rights organization, adding it’s important the pressure be maintained as long as Badawi isn’t released and reunited with his family.

“We’re following the situation from day to day. If we see he hasn’t been released next week, we’ll be more visible on the matter,” Lelièvre said. “Even if he is released, there are other conditions he’ll have to follow, and sadly he won’t be sent to Canada.”

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