On the 4th anniversary of his arrest, supporters renew calls to free Raif Badawi

Four years after Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested, not enough has been done by Canada to help secure his release, according to his supporters.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has remained behind bars since June 17, 2012, despite international outcry

Ensaf Haidar, wife of blogger Raif Badawi, takes part in a rally for his freedom in Montreal on January 13, 2015. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Four years after Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested, supporters say not enough has been done by Canada to help secure his release.

A rally organized by Amnesty International is set to take place today in Sherbrooke, Que., the city where Badawi's wife lives with their three children.

"We still feel very frustrated and impatient with the situation," said Amnesty International's Alain Roy on Thursday.

"We continue to ask Saudi Arabia to drop all charges against him and to release him without delay and conditions."

We still feel very frustrated and impatient with the situation.- Alain Roy, Amnesty International

Badawi was arrested on June 17th, 2012  in Jeddah on a charge of "insulting Islam through electronic channels."

He was the co-founder of a blog called the Liberal Saudi Network, which hosted material "ridiculing Islamic religious figures," according to Amnesty International.

In 2014, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million Saudi Arabian riyals (about $315,000 Cdn).

Raif Badawi and his children, who are now with their mother in Sherbrooke, Quebec. (submitted by the Badawi family)

Condemnation, but no movement

Both Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper's governments condemned Badawi's incarceration.

In December 2015, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion took up Badawi's case with his Saudi counterpart in Ottawa.

"I expressed the government's hope that clemency will be granted in this case," said Dion in a written statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said around the same time that he was not prepared to personally intervene in Badawi's case.

"It's not in my immediate plans," Trudeau said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.

But navigating the backchannels of diplomacy is not sufficient, said Sherbrooke's NDP MP, Pierre-Luc Dusseault.

"I think it's sad that today we are at the same point as we were before," he said.

Both Dusseault and Amnesty International are calling on the federal government to put more pressure on Saudi Arabia to free Badawi. 

In a statement, Canada's foreign affairs department said on Thursday it has "raised the case of Mr. Badawi at the highest levels, including expressing our hope that clemency would be granted."

Ensaf Haidar (centre), the wife of Raif Badawi, protested on Parliament Hill for the release of the jailed Saudi blogger. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Growing health concerns

Earlier this week, Badawi was hospitalized following his third hunger strike.

According to his wife, Ensaf Haidar, he had severe kidney pains and starved himself to be able to access medical attention.

He also held hunger strikes in December 2015 and January 2016.

Haidar confirmed he's been examined at a clinic for his kidney pains, but the state of his health is unknown.

Raif Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar, along with their three children, have political asylum in Canada and are living in Sherbrooke, Que. (CBC/Sudha Krishnan)

Amnesty International pushing for release

Amnesty International has been calling for Badawi's release since 2012, at which point he was facing a death sentence.

"Even in Saudi Arabia where state repression is rife, it is beyond the pale to seek the death penalty for an activist whose only 'crime' was to enable social debate online," wrote Philip Luther, spokesman for Amnesty International in December of 2012.

Besides today's rally in Sherbrooke, the non-government organization also held rallies in Ottawa and Montreal earlier this week as a way to put additional pressure on the Canadian government.

Protesters gather at a protest for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in Montreal in 2015. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Sherbrooke connections

Badawi's wife and the couple's three children sought refuge in Sherbrooke, Que. after his arrest.

Haidar said she feared for the safety of their children and herself in Saudi Arabia. She fled via Egypt and Lebanon, before finally making it to Canada.

"I felt threatened by those who demanded Raif's imprisonment," she said.

Sherbrooke's city hall flies two large flags that say "Sherbrooke is Raif" and "Raif Badawi, citizen of Sherbrooke." Badawi's wife and three children moved to Sherbrooke in October 2013. (Radio-Canada)

The city has since adopted the family with enthusiasm. City Hall put up two large posters of Badawi's face, calling for his release.

Sherbrooke's Member of Parliament, Pierre-Luc Dusseault has met with Haidar on separate occasions, and said he's unsurprised that the city supports the family.

"I think people in Sherbrooke can really relate to the story of Madam Haidar, who is Mr. Badawi's wife. It's probably the main reason Sherbrooke is so involved in that fight to get Mr. Badawi into Canada as soon as possible," he said.