Advocates for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi are urging Riyadh to release him next month, when his 10-year prison sentence will come to an end according to the Islamic calendar.
Mr. Badawi was arrested in 2012 on accusations of insulting Islamic religious figures on his blog; he has been imprisoned since. In a 2014 court decision decried by human-rights groups as unjust, Mr. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for blasphemy. In keeping with the Hijri calendar, also known as the Islamic calendar, the high-profile political prisoner will have spent a decade in prison as of Rajab 26 1443, which equates to Feb. 28, 2022 in the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world.
Renowned international human-rights lawyer and former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler is Mr. Badawi’s international legal counsel. Mr. Cotler said that even if the Saudi government abides by the Islamic calendar and releases his client next month, cruel and inhumane treatment will continue for Mr. Badawi, whose family resides in Canada.
“He’s scheduled to be released on Feb. 28 but the release is not really a full release. He’s still subject to a 10-year travel ban, he’s subject to a 10-year media ban and he’s got a punitive fine of a million Saudi riyals,” Mr. Cotler said. “It’s a release to a prison without walls and a continuing denial of family reunification.” (One million riyals is worth roughly $335,000.)
Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said the government remains extremely concerned about Mr. Badawi’s case and is following it closely. However, she did not say whether Canada recognizes Feb. 28 as the conclusion of his prison sentence.
“We have raised Mr. Badawi’s case to the highest levels with Saudi Arabia and we have repeatedly called for leniency to be granted,” Ms. Tremblay said in a statement. “The government of Canada wants to see Mr. Badawi reunited with his family.”
The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment about when it intends to release Mr. Badawi.
Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, said the Saudi government should theoretically base Mr. Badawi’s sentence on the Islamic calendar and release him next month. However, he added, the Saudis are unpredictable.
“We sometimes try from the outside to impose some sort of regularity to this and some sort of logic to it, but it’s a system that doesn’t operate on the basis of any logic whatsoever,” he said.
Mr. Horak thinks there is a 50-per-cent chance Mr. Badawi will be released next month. The Saudi government might release him in an attempt to take another political “irritant” off the table, Mr. Horak said, as it faces growing negative publicity for its role in the war in Yemen.
On the other hand, Mr. Horak said, additional public pressure on the Saudis, particularly from Canada and Mr. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, could backfire. Ms. Haidar has been outspoken about her husband’s case.
“By vocalizing and publicizing it … the Saudis are going to go, ‘We’re not going to give into you.’ And they sort of dig their heels in,” Mr. Horak said.
Mr. Cotler said it would be appropriate for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reopen a discussion channel with Saudi leadership as Feb. 28 approaches. He added that Ms. Haidar has been an asset to Mr. Badawi’s case.
“In all my work on behalf of political prisoners for over 40 years, the political prisoners who were released were very often released because they had a spouse on the outside advocating for their freedom,” Mr. Cotler said.
Although Mr. Badawi is not Canadian, his wife and three children are Canadian citizens and live in Sherbrooke, Que. Last year, the House of Commons and Senate passed separate motions calling on Canada to grant Mr. Badawi citizenship. Ms. Haidar urged the federal government to follow through.
“The government now has a chance to stand in solidarity with us, alleviate our pain and recognize his singular contribution to the global human-rights movement by granting him citizenship and securing his safe passage to be reunited with his family in Canada upon his release,” Ms. Haidar said.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Rémi Larivière said that while the department is working with Global Affairs Canada on the motions, it cannot speak to any specifics related to individual cases because of privacy, security and safety reasons.
Even if Mr. Badawi is released, Mr. Horak said he will face a “difficult existence” in Saudi Arabia, as he will be monitored by the government, face restrictions on internet usage and come up against tough employment prospects.
Mr. Badawi’s sister, Samar Badawi, was also detained from 2018 to 2021 after a sweeping crackdown on female activists in Saudi Arabia. The Badawi cases have been a central issue in a tense diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia.
In 2018, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and her department called on the Saudis to release arrested civil-rights activists, including the Badawis, and expressed concern about a crackdown. Saudi Arabia responded by expelling Mr. Horak, recalling its envoy to Ottawa and freezing new trade deals and investment with Canada.
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