Overview:

The Saudi blogger who challenged Islamic tradition was finally released from prison, but many questions remain.

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It came as something of a shock on Friday when the family of Raif Badawi announced that, after ten years, he was finally out of prison.

That was shocking largely because it seemed hard to believe this day would ever come.

How Raif Badawi ended up in prison

A resident of Saudi Arabia, Badawi was first arrested in 2008 on charges of apostasy after the online forum he created, “Saudi Liberal Network,” began advancing relatively liberal ideas. Among other things, he questioned the treatment of women in society and openly challenged the idea that everyone needed to follow Islam. Human Rights Watch noted that the site was also “critical of senior religious figures.

Badawi was a Muslim, but in a place like Saudi Arabia, a progressive Muslim wasn’t a Muslim at all, and the idea of religious tolerance within the kingdom was a bridge too far for many.

In 2012, after a series of arrests and releases, Badawi was arrested once again on charges of “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” That charged was later changed to apostasy, which carried a death sentence. By 2013, after an international outcry, the sentence had been “reduced” to “insulting Islam,” which still carried a seven-year prison sentence and a punishment of 600 lashes.

His family appealed the conviction… but it only made things worse. He was sentenced in 2014 to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine that came out to about $267,000.

The international backlash grew more fierce after that:

“He is a prisoner of conscience who is guilty of nothing more than daring to create a public forum for discussion and peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression.,” said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International.

It didn’t help. The sentence stood. The first 50 lashes were delivered in a public setting in 2015. Despite a plan to deliver another 50 lashes each week for 20 weeks, the Saudis repeatedly postponed the punishment in part due to Badawi’s health and also, perhaps, due to the fact that the world was paying attention and using this case as a clear example of Saudi cruelty.

Still, no matter how many human rights groups, Nobel laureates, and government leaders (including former Vice President Mike Pence) called for Badawi’s release, he remained in prison.

Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haider, and their three children were able to settle in Quebec in 2013, but they never stopped fighting for Badawi to join them as soon as possible.

That’s where we were still at as of last week. The world’s attention had seemingly moved on. With global crises everywhere for the past few years, Badawi’s plight was no longer a top concern for world leaders. It didn’t help that there was little to no information about his situation (at least publicly). Was he healthy? Alive? Even if he finished his prison sentence, would he even be released?

His sentence was completed last month

Badawi completed his sentence on February 28, but he wasn’t released immediately, leading to outcry from Amnesty International. There were always lingering doubts about whether the Saudis would abide by their own decision.

But then, out of nowhere, we learned he was no longer behind bars.

That tweet was made by one of Badawi’s children. It was also extremely vague. It was unclear where he was, whether he was healthy, and what his future held. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed just as in the dark, saying his government was working on getting more “clarity” about his situation.

But on Friday afternoon, Ensaf Haider confirmed that he had called her that morning to announce his release and that he was “doing well.” That was a sign of relief, no doubt, but so many questions about his immediate plans remained unanswered.

The release of Raif Badawi isn’t the end of the story

Even now, after Badawi’s been released, this story is far from over. That’s partly because the Saudi government, on top of his ten-year prison sentence, also imposed a ten-year travel ban to follow it. That means he’s currently unable to simply hop on a flight to Canada to reunited with his family… even if the Canadian government is ready to welcome him as a citizen with all the necessary paperwork already in check.

The only that that would change that is a royal pardon. Or more international pressure.

The Saudis aren’t likely to cave, though. The last thing they want is for Badawi to head to Canada where he will be able to speak firsthand about his unjust treatment at the hands of a theocratic regime dedicated to stifling criticism. And yet, if Badawi is forced to remain in Saudi Arabia, what’s stopping the government from arresting him on brand new charges? It’s not like he did anything wrong the first time, so there’s no reason to expect the government, effectively run by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to just move on and let him be a free man.

Badawi remains in danger at least until he’s out of Saudi Arabia and back home with his family where he belongs.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.