Rights group calls on Canadian prime minister to urge Saudi Arabia to free jailed activist Raif Badawi, who is nearing five years of imprisonment
TORONTO, Canada – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must personally call on Saudi Arabia to release jailed human rights defender Raif Badawi, Amnesty International has urged.
In an open letter released on Wednesday, the human rights group said Ottawa must “renew and intensify efforts” to push Riyadh to free Badawi, who was arrested almost five years ago, on 17 June 2012.
Canada is particularly well placed to lobby on Badawi’s behalf because his wife and three young children reside in the province of Quebec, and have been granted permanent residency in Canada, Amnesty International said.
“Canada is well positioned to urge Saudi officials to release Mr Badawi on humanitarian grounds so that he can reunite with his family. In fact there is no other country with a stronger responsibility to champion Mr Badawi’s case,” the group said in the letter.
Badawi ran a website in Saudi Arabia called Free Saudi Liberals, which called for freedom of expression and encouraged a debate on human rights and religious issues in the Gulf Kingdom.
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After his arrest, Badawi was charged with insulting Islam online, among other things. He was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, a hefty fine, a travel ban, and 1,000 public lashes, to be meted out over a period of 20 consecutive weeks.
He received the first 50 lashes in January 2015 in Jeddah, but subsequent flogging sessions were postponed due to health concerns and an international outcry.
Badawi has remained in prison in Saudi Arabia since that time.
“I have the impression that his soul is being crushed, literally. This prison has crushed his soul,” said Elham Manea, a spokesperson for the Badawi family, who told Middle East Eye that she feared Badawi would be released as a shadow of his past self.
“From that perspective, it’s very urgent” that he be released as soon as possible, she said.
“It’s about time. Five years are more than enough. His family has suffered enough. He has suffered enough. He’s really going through a very bad time in the prison,” Manea said.
She explained that it was ironic that Badawi remains behind bars when some of the reforms he previously called for have begun to be implemented in Saudi Arabia.
This includes limiting the powers bestowed to the Saudi religious police, and offering more music, theatre, and other entertainment events within the country.
“One sees a certain kind of readiness; one has the impression that within Saudi Arabia things are moving in a different direction,” Manea said, adding that she hoped Badawi would soon be pardoned.
“We’re hoping that Canada will play an important role… But we all understanding that, [in] the end, the decision will be with the Saudis themselves,” she said.
Canadian officials have raised Badawi’s case with their Saudi counterparts over the last few years.
Last October, Canada’s former foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion said the government was using diplomatic channels to lobby for his release.
“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," Dion said at the time.
But the Saudi ambassador to Canada publicly rejected the minister’s request. “Mr Badawi is a Saudi citizen, [and] has nothing to do with the relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia,” Naif Bin Bandar al-Sudairy said, according to local media reports.
Still, Amnesty International is pressing Canada, and the prime minister himself, to intervene this time.
“But as the disheartening fifth anniversary of his arrest draws closer, we urge you to make this case an even higher priority, including through your own personal, public call in support of Mr Badawi’s release,” the group said.