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PoliticsMiddle East

Would Canadian citizenship free Raif Badawi?

March 25, 2021

Officials say the imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi would be welcome in Canada, where his family lives. His wife hopes for an early release before Ramadan, if Saudi Arabia agrees.

Autoren setzen sich für inhaftierten Blogger Badawi ein
Image: picture alliance/dpa

There is new momentum within Canada toward offering citizenship to the dissident Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, which would in theory grant him new legal protections in his home country, where he has been imprisoned since 2012. In 2014, Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, including the time already served, 1,000 lashes and a $266,000 fine for hosting a blog that was critical of aspects of the Saudi regime.

Ensaf Haidar, Badawi's wife, fled Saudi Arabia to Egypt with their three children before his arrest in 2012 and then in 2014 to Canada, where they were granted citizenship.

Giving Badawi citizenship, as well, would increase Canada's leverage, as officials would be able to formally demand the return of a citizen and he would be granted access to consular services in Saudi Arabia.

Ensaf Haidar, wife of Raif Badawi
Haidar has campaigned for her husband's release since her arrival in Canada in 2014Image: Paul Chiasson/empics/picture alliance

Canadian officials continue to raise Badawi's case in talks with Saudi Arabia's government at the highest levels, Alexander Cohen, the press secretary for Canadian Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino, told DW. "Every member of Canada's Parliament — and indeed every Canadian — wants to see Mr. Badawi reunited with his family, and we will continue to support them in every way possible," Cohen said.  

Reason for optimism?

Though Badawi is officially scheduled to be let out of prison in 2022, his sentence includes a 10-year travel ban following his release. However, given recent developments in Saudi Arabia, including the release of the women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdulaziz and the crown prince's road map for modernizing the country, and the approach of Ramadan, which has traditionally been a window for pardoning political prisoners, the timing of the push for Canadian citizenship and an early release seems optimal.

Haidar told DW that she is optimistic that her husband could be set free before the end of his sentence. "Since me and my children are Canadian, we have the Canadian citizenship and are living here, the citizenship gives me hope in terms of a family reunification," Haidar said. However, Saudi Arabia doesn't recognize dual citizenship and would have to approve a passport exchange for Badawi, who received the DW Freedom of Speech award in 2015

"Saudi Arabia is under international pressure," Sebastian Sons, a political analyst at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), told DW. Furthermore, the administration of President Joe Biden in the United States appears more willing to apply pressure to the government of Saudi Arabia than Donald Trump's had. 

Given the international attention focused on Saudi Arabia, especially after the recent publication of the report on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, officials may feel pressured to respond publicly in a case as prominent as Badawi's. "Saudi officials are fully aware that they have no other option than to show some goodwill on human rights issues since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," Sons said. However, the more typical Saudi policy seems to be to one of silencing dissidents. "Several human rights activists were released but are under house arrest and are not allowed to comment publicly on politics," he said. 

According to the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which is working for Badawi's release, Saudi authorities have most recently accused Badawi and his wife of "harming the reputation of the country" and "influencing public opinion." It remains to be seen whether this will result in further legal steps. Irwin Cotler, Canada's former justice minister and attorney general, and the founder and chair of the Wallenberg Centre, is serving as international legal counsel to the Badawi family.

This includes Samar Badawi, Raif's sister and a prominent women's rights activist who was arrested in 2018. For now, she remains imprisoned. 

Gasia Ohanes contributed to this article.

Ensaf Haidar in her own words

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East