After 10 years in prison for "insulting Islam", Saudi blogger and human rights activist Raif Badawi, who has become a symbol of freedom of expression around the world, was released on Friday.
"Raif called me. He is free," his wife Ensaf Haidar, who lives in Canada with their three children and had been fiercely advocating for his release, told AFP.
Badawi's release was also confirmed by a Saudi security official who said on condition of anonymity that "he was released today.
"I jumped when I found out. I couldn't believe it. I can't wait to see my dad, I'm so excited," one of his daughters, Nawja Badawi, 18, told AFP.
The winner of the Reporters Without Borders prize for press freedom, who is now 38 years old, was arrested and detained in Saudi Arabia in 2012 on charges of "insulting Islam," and at the end of 2014 was sentenced to 10 years in prison as well as 50 lashes a week for twenty weeks.
His first flogging in Jeddah square in Saudi Arabia in 2015 shocked the world, and was described by the United Nations as "cruel and inhuman." After the outcry, he would not be lashed again.
"Raif Badawi, human rights defender in Saudi Arabia, has finally been released!" Amnesty International tweeted.
"Thousands of you have mobilized alongside us in the defense of Raif Badawi for 10 years. A big thank you to all of you for your tireless support."
Colette Lelievre, a Montreal-based campaign organizer with Amnesty who has worked on Badawi's case, said his release was "a great relief."
"Ensaf was at a loss for words," Lelievre said Friday after speaking with her. "She worked so hard to free her husband that emotions overwhelmed her."
"This is a big step forward for her," she added.
Every Friday for almost seven years, Haidar -- who fled to Canada after Badawi's arrest and has since become a Canadian citizen -- had held a public vigil for him.
She'd told AFP in late February at the 374th vigil in Sherbrooke, Quebec where she lives that she'd been able to maintain contact with her husband, speaking with him "up to three times a week" by telephone.
Canada's Quebec province has paved the way for Badawi to come to this country if he chooses by placing him on a priority list of potential immigrants for humanitarian reasons.
No details of his release conditions were immediately available.
But Amnesty noted that the Saudi blogger could still face a 10-year ban on all travel outside Saudi Arabia following his release.
The NGO added in an email to AFP that it would "actively work to have any conditions lifted."
"Finally! I keep thinking about the children who will finally see their father!" Quebec Premier François Legault tweeted Friday.
International NGOs and the United Nations continue to denounce the brutal repression of dissenting voices and the imprisonment of activists in Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom's efforts to improve its image by undertaking certain reforms.
Raif Badawi's sister, Samar Badawi, as well as activist Nassima al-Sadah, released in 2021, remain stranded in the kingdom.
A Sunni Muslim like most Saudis, Raif Badawi studied economics and ran an institute for learning English and computer techniques, according to his wife. He enjoys reading and is known for his writings in support of freedom of expression.
The blogger won the 2014 Reporters Without Borders prize in the net-citizen category.
He was also awarded by the European Parliament in 2015 the Sakharov Prize for Freedom, and in 2015 and 2016, he was among the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.