Montreal makes jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi an honorary citizen

The City of Montreal made jailed blogger Raif Badawi an honorary citizen this afternoon in an effort to speed up his release from the Saudi Arabian prison where he's been held since 2012.

Move aims to pressure Saudi Arabia to speed up release of blogger jailed since 2012

Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi, who has been jailed in Saudi Arabia since 2013, accepted honorary citizenship in Montreal on his behalf Monday. (Radio-Canada)

The City of Montreal has made jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi an honorary citizen.

The move is symbolic and doesn't grant him Canadian citizenship, which is a federal prerogative. The municipal politicians who pushed for the move say they hope it will generate support from other cities, further pressuring Saudi Arabian officials to release him.

Coun. Marvin Rotrand and Ensemble Montréal, the official opposition at Montreal City Hall, proposed a non-partisan motion last week to honour Badawi. However, Mayor Valérie Plante announced the city had gone ahead and made Badawi an honorary citizen before Rotrand had a chance to table the motion.

Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children live in Sherbrooke, Que. They were granted political asylum in Canada in 2013. Badawi has been in jail in Saudi Arabia since 2012, when he was arrested for promoting liberal views of Islam on his blog.

Sherbrooke residents and local politicians have been steadfast in their support for Haidar and her family, holding more than 180 vigils for Badawi on Fridays over the past four years.

'Important for democracy'

In a short ceremony in Montreal granting Badawi honorary citizenship, Plante said it was "a moment that is important for democracy and freedom of expression."

She said Badawi "is a great man who has dedicated his life to human rights and freedom of expression and who is condemned and tortured" as a result.

Badawi's wife as well as former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler, Rotrand and opposition party leader Lionel Perez spoke to media before the ceremony.

Rotrand said he would like the federal government to be "more in your face" in appealing to Saudi foreign officials to push for Badawi's release.

In order for that to happen, Rotrand said, the public interest in the case needs to remain at levels similar to when international news outlets first picked up the story in 2013.

Montreal's gesture comes days before Haidar is expected to receive full Canadian citizenship on Friday, Rotrand said.

Haidar made her own appeal to the public, saying, "I've received a lot of hope, a lot of awards, and I have hope, but up until now nothing has changed in Raif's case."

"Help me, please."

Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $300,000 — a punishment that was decried by human rights defenders worldwide at the time.

His original sentence included a total 1,000 lashes. He received the first 50 lashes but is believed to have been spared the others because of poor health.

In December, Haidar​ said she was told by a European Parliament delegation that Badawi was on "a list of people who would be forgiven by the king," but it was unclear when that would happen.

Badawi's imprisonment has drawn widespread international condemnation, and human rights groups have accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of not doing enough to free him.