Stuck in Saudi prison, Raif Badawi receives honorary degree for defence of free speech

Five years after Raif Badawi was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia because of his liberal blog, he was honoured by Université de Sherbrooke, the city where his wife and kids have lived for the past three years.

Imprisoned blogger honoured in absentia in Sherbrooke, Que., where his wife and children live

Raif Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, seen here in 2015, accepted an honorary degree from Université de Sherbrooke on her husband's behalf Thursday. (Christian Lutz/Associated Press)

Five years after Raif Badawi was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia because of his liberal blog, he was honoured by Université de Sherbrooke, the city where his wife and kids have lived for the past three years.

His wife Ensaf Haidar accepted the degree on his behalf.

"Things like this give him courage and hope," Haidar told the crowd.

She was able to speak with her husband Tuesday. He dictated an acceptance speech to her. In it, he thanked everyone in Sherbrooke for remembering him and his cause.

The university is awarding Badawi an honorary doctorate for "his exceptional contribution to the defence of freedom of expression."

10-year prison sentence, 1,000 lashes

Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $300,000 for insulting Islam and religious figures on his blog — a punishment that was decried by human rights defenders worldwide at the time.

Haidar fled her home country for Egypt, then Lebanon with the couple's three children after Badawi was arrested on June 17, 2012, before coming to Canada. They were granted political asylum in 2013.

He received 50 lashes at the beginning of the sentence but hasn't been flogged since, following public outcry over his treatment. 

His original sentence included a total 1,000 lashes. 

Haidar said while Badawi's prison conditions have improved overall, he seldom is able to call because of what it costs him, financially and emotionally.

The coming fifth-year anniversary of his arrest "has not been easy for him, it's been really difficult," she said.

Badawi's fight for free speech now her own

Haidar continues to fight for her husband's release.

She calls their relationship a "Romeo and Juliet" love story.

It started in her teens, when she accidentally called him from her brother's phone. They would secretly catch glimpses of each other after her parents forbade them from seeing each other.

He soon proposed. 

Raif Badawi, seen here with his children, hasn't seen them in five years. They are now with their mother in Sherbrooke, Que. (submitted by the Badawi family)

Since Badawi's detention, Haidar has partnered with Amnesty International, which has taken up his cause as supporters continue to protest and call for his release. 

She continuously updates her social media feeds on his status and on demonstrations condemning his imprisonment. 

Haidar also created the Fondation Raif Badawi pour la liberté in 2015 to defend free speech in the Middle East, which she says Badawi plans on upholding when he is released.

The federal and Quebec governments have assured her he will be granted asylum.

Quebec has already set aside a selection certificate that would speed up the immigration process.  And on a visit to Sherbrooke this winter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised her Badawi would be able to become a citizen, she said.

Last week, her children were the ones sending a plea to Trudeau to call the king of Saudi Arabia in a video posted to Youtube by Amnesty International. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses with Raif Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, and children. (Amnesty International)

"We've waited too long, we need to see our father," their youngest daughter, Myriam, says in the video.

Government treads carefully

The dean of Université de Sherbrooke's faculty of law — which first proposed giving Badawi the degree, though it's being granted by the institution as a whole — says the university wanted to "make sure that this great injustice that Mr. Badawi has been suffering does not go unnoticed." 

"Universities are built on free speech, are built on the free exchange of ideas and therefore if universities don't stand up for those values, then who will?" said Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, the dean, adding it was important to take a stand on values the students will apply in their professions.

Lebel-Grenier said it was hard to comment Canada's response because diplomatic actions are "by their nature confidential," adding, "we all feel very frustrated that this has been going on for five years now." 

In the fall, former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion said, "the Canadian government invites, indeed, insists that the Saudi Arabian government and the king show clemency and permit Mr. Badawi to join his family here in Canada."

But earlier that year, Trudeau took flak for saying the government was treading carefully.

"Obviously, we want to be able to help," Trudeau said in an interview with Montreal radio station 98.5 FM. "Sometimes, pushing too hard, too quickly has harmful consequences for the people you want to try to help."

In the years since they've arrived, the Badawi family has been adapting well to their new city and country, Haidar said, adding her children love their school and friends.

"Sherbrooke is our family. We continue, we won't let go," said Haidar, adding that she wants to "thank everyone and ask that no one forgets" Badawi's plight.