The Saudi Arabian government has released blogger and human rights activist Raif Badawi on Friday after a ten-year prison sentence, his wife Ensaf Haider confirmed. Badawi founded an online forum, “Free Saudi Liberals,” that encouraged discussions about secularism and liberal religious practices. His writings were also critical of the Islamic clergy.
He was arrested in June 2012 on charges of apostasy, insulting Islam and “disobeying his father.” The apostasy charge, which is punishable by death, was subsequently dropped. In July 2013, a Saudi court sentenced him to seven years in prison, six hundred lashes and ordered his blog’s shut down. Saudi authorities, reportedly finding his sentence to be lenient, appealed to a higher court, which extended his sentence to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes, a one million Riyal fine, and a media and travel ban for the next ten years from his release.
Badawi received the first fifty lashes in a public square before a Jeddah mosque in 2015, which was met with a resounding international outcry. Due to Badawi’s deteriorating health and international outrage, the remaining lashes were not meted out to him by Saudi authorities. In April 2020, the Saudi Supreme Court abolished flogging as a form of punishment.
With Badawi’s prison sentence ending on March 1, 2022, several human rights organizations called upon the Saudi government for his immediate release. While he has been released ten days later, the conditions of his release are unclear due to the travel and media ban that is still reportedly in effect. Badawi’s family fled to Canada following his arrest in 2012 and have since become Canadian citizens. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, welcomed Badawi’s release and stated that Canadian authorities are seeking “clarity on the conditions of his release.”
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed its relief at Badawi’s release, calling him a “prisoner of conscience,” and criticized Saudi Arabia’s long history of religious persecution of dissidents. In January it’s 2021, the US State Department designated Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 (IRFA). However, it later issued a waiver exempting Saudi Arabia from sanctions it would have been subject to under the IRFA.
Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, has been detained since April 2014 and was convicted for “inciting public opinion against the government.” He is serving a fifteen-year prison sentence, which a fifteen-year travel ban will follow. International organizations are hoping for his release as well.