Former minister calls on Trudeau to use Saudi relationship in Badawi case

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler says there are growing fears that Saudi Arabia will resume flogging Raif Badawi, jailed for “insulting Islam,” now that the kingdom has again secured a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Mr. Cotler, who serves as international counsel to Mr. Badawi, is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to use Canada’s $15-billion armoured-vehicle sale to Riyadh to help win the writer’s release. It was only two months ago that the Saudi government’s chief envoy said that awarding the deal to Canada was intended to cement its friendship with the Canadian government.

The Saudi government needs to keep international allies onside as it struggles with a reputation as an abysmal human-rights offender for a bombing campaign in Yemen that has been accused of killing thousands of civilians and an alleged role in funding extremists and terrorist groups.

Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in January, 2015, for insulting Islam on his blog. After he received 50 lashes, the Saudis suspended the remainder of the punishment in the face of an international outcry, but he remains behind bars.

Mr. Cotler said the federal government should challenge the Saudis to demonstrate their professed friendship by releasing Mr. Badawi, who now has a significant connection to Canada.

“The arms sale should be leveraged in this regard,” he said in an interview.

“Saudi Arabia says it wants to have significant relations with us. Then they can’t only breach international treaties, but they also can’t breach the bilateral relationship by the detention and torture of someone whose entire family is living here.”

Mr. Badawi’s wife and three children were granted asylum in Canada in 2013 and are now settled in Sherbrooke. The Quebec government has said it is prepared to help the Saudi writer gain permanent residency in Canada if he is released.

Mr. Cotler said a foundation set up to support Mr. Badawi has been informed by a reliable source that Saudi Arabia may be prepared to resume his flogging. “It’s being taken seriously by Badawi’s wife and the Badawi foundation.”

He said he and other advocates for Mr. Badawi are arguing that it’s in Saudi Arabia’s “self-interest to release him, otherwise the mobilization of shame against [the kingdom] is going to continue internationally and they will pay a price.”

Saudi Arabia, which regularly ranks among the “worst of the worst” on human rights on U.S. watchdog Freedom House’s annual list, won re-election to the UN Human Rights Council last week. It gives the country influence on a body that decides each year which countries to place under scrutiny.

Mr. Cotler said the thinking is that Saudi Arabia stopped administering lashes to Mr. Badawi while it was still a candidate for the post and “now that they are selected, they can continue to conduct themselves with impunity.”

The Saudi government, which has pointedly declared in the past that it did not need to give the armoured-vehicle contract to Canada, has described the deal as a gesture of goodwill. “This contract has been given to Canada to improve the relations and enhance the relations,” Ambassador Naif Bin Bandar al-Sudairi told The Globe and Mail in September.

Mr. Cotler said advocates for Mr. Badawi are trying to get world leaders to step up their pressure on Saudi Arabia over this matter – what he called the “internationalization of the advocacy.”

This week, the Canadian government welcomed to Ottawa the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission, a controversial state-controlled body that publicly supported the kingdom’s mass executions in January, 2016.

Human-rights advocates say they fear that treating the commission as a serious watchdog plays into the Saudi government’s efforts to bolster its reputation.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion defended hosting the commission by saying he prefers to engage rather than shun the Saudis and promised to raise the Badawi case with them.

But Mr. Cotler said he does not see the commission as effective. “It serves more to defend … what the government is doing in matters of human-rights violations rather than independently investigate reports regarding torture and detention.”