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Saudi Blogger Reported Freed After Decade in Prison

FILE - Ensaf Haidar, wife of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, shows a portrait of him as he is awarded the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg, France, Dec. 16, 2015. Badawi was released March 11, 2021, after a decade in prison for criticizing the Saudi conservative religious establishment.

Saudi Arabian blogger and activist Raif Badawi, whose conviction caused widespread international outrage, was released Friday after a decade in prison for criticizing the country's conservative religious establishment, his Quebec-based wife confirmed.

Ensaf Haidar, who lives with the couple's three children in the city of Sherbrooke, tweeted that the 2015 winner of Europe's Sakharov human rights award "is free." A spokesperson for the family said it had no other comment.

Badawi's sentence expired February 28, and Montreal-based human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, who represents Badawi internationally, said last month the release from prison had been expected sometime in March.

Cotler, a former federal justice minister and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, had warned that Badawi still faced a 10-year travel ban, a media ban and a punitive fine that was handed down at the time of sentencing.

"We're talking about a kind of prison without walls where he's deprived of travel for the next 10 years," Cotler said at the time. "That would be continuing the punishment outside of prison that he was having inside prison — the severe pain of being deprived of being with his wife and children."

Badawi was jailed in 2012 and sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals — now about $340,000 — for criticizing the country's clerics in his writings.

Most of the floggings were suspended, but he eventually suffered 50 lashes before hundreds of spectators in the city of Jiddah in 2015. Badawi's feet and hands were shackled during the flogging but his face was visible.

The punishment roused outrage and condemnation from around the world, including from many of Saudi Arabia's allies.

Sakharov winner

The European Union awarded Badawi the prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights in 2015, and the U.S. State Department and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the kingdom to rescind the sentence.

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing work visas for Swedes in 2015 after the Scandinavian country's foreign minister described the Badawi decision as "medieval" and said the kingdom's ruling Al Saud family presided over a "dictatorship."

Last year, both Canada's House of Commons and Senate urged the immigration minister to grant Badawi Canadian citizenship, but that hasn't happened yet. His wife, however, does have Canadian citizenship.

Badawi's sister Samar also was imprisoned in 2018 in a crackdown targeting female activists who had peacefully advocated for greater freedoms, according to rights groups. She was freed last year.

Canadian criticism of her case led the Saudi government to expel Canada's ambassador and withdraw its own ambassador. It also halted flights by its national airline and ordered Saudi students in Canada to return home.

Samar Badawi and others had criticized Saudi Arabia's male guardianship laws, which gave husbands, fathers and in some cases a woman's own son control over her ability to obtain a passport and travel. They had also advocated for the right of women to drive. Both restrictions have since been lifted.

Samar Badawi, who also faced a ban on travel, first came to prominence when she petitioned Saudi courts to remove her father as her legal guardian on the ground that he was barring her from marrying potential suitors. Years later, she spoke out in defense of her brother Raif.