Quebec family of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi hope he will soon be released

The family of Raif Badawi is counting down the days until his possible release, 10 years after he was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for promoting liberal views of Islam.

Hurdles remain to reunite Badawi, jailed in Saudi Arabia in 2012, with family in Eastern Townships

A woman in a toque and gloves holds a sign that says "free Raif."
The family of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi hopes that he may soon be released. But advocates say Badawi still faces hurdles before being reunited with family in Canada. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The family of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi says his release may be imminent, a decade after he was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for criticizing religious figures and promoting liberal views of Islam.

Badawi, whose wife and three children now live in Quebec's Eastern Townships, was arrested in 2012 and initially sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine of more than $340,000.

His story made international headlines in 2015 when, as part of that sentence, he was whipped 50 times in front of the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah. The resulting international pressure forced the suspension of the remainder of his lashes, according to Amnesty International.

Now, after an unbearable wait, his family and supporters believe his release may be days away, as his 10-year sentence will have been served in full by Feb. 28. 

"My father was always giving us hugs and I don't even remember," said his eldest daughter Najwa Badawi, who is now a student at the Cégep de Sherbrooke.

"It's not very normal that a child doesn't even remember her father's hugs anymore."

Najwa Badawi, the eldest daughter of Badawi, was just a young child when her father was first jailed a decade ago. She's now 18 and a student at the Cégep de Sherbrooke. (Radio-Canada)

Family fighting to bring him to Canada

Former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who has served as international legal counsel to Badawi's family, said there are still legal hurdles that Saudi authorities would need to drop in order for the family to bring him to Canada. 

"They would need to authorize that the other restrictions that were placed at the initial sentencing are no longer enforced," he said. That includes the fine and a 10-year travel ban.

"This is something that [his family has] been painfully awaiting now for 10 years," said Cotler. "I've seen it myself and seen the children — living deprived of their father has been very difficult."

Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, shows a portrait of her husband as he is awarded the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg, France, in this Dec, 16, 2015 file photo. (Christian Lutz/The Associated Press)

Though progress has been slow, Saudi officials may wish to appear merciful in releasing Badawi now, according to Sylvana Al Baba Douaihy, a researcher at the society, law and religion research centre of l'Université de Sherbrooke.

"The crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] has this ambition to repair his image and the image of the kingdom, which was pretty tarnished after the assasination of [Jamal] Khashoggi in 2018," she said.

'He should be proud' 

While she awaits his return, Najwa Badawi says she makes the most of the short phone calls she gets with her father, even if they have to stick to surface-level conversations. 

"We can't talk about real things because he's being listened to. He can't talk to us about how he's feeling," she said. "It's been 11 years that I haven't seen him. I don't know what he looks like and he doesn't know what we look like."

Najwa Badawi hopes to study law, so that she can defend people in similar situations to her father, who has spent 10 years as a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. (Radio-Canada)

Najwa says her father should be proud that he fought to advance freedoms in his home country, despite the consequences. And inspired by her father, she hopes to study to become a lawyer. 

"I want … to be able to defend people who are in his situation," she said. "If I can help people, he will be proud of me. It will make him happy."

With files from Sharon Yonan-Renold, Radio-Canada's Geneviève Proulx