POLITICS

Harper Government Urged To Help Secure Release Of Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi

01/13/2015 12:18 EST | Updated 03/15/2015 05:59 EDT
MONTREAL - The wife of a Saudi blogger who was flogged 50 times last week after being convicted of insulting Islam has accused the Arab country of regressing hundreds of years with the way it is treating Raif Badawi.

"My husband was imprisoned for simply expressing his liberal opinions in a country that has gone back to acting like the courts of the Middle Ages," Ensaf Haidar said through an interpreter Tuesday.

"The Islamic inquisition tribunals that were established in Saudi Arabia are back...and putting an end to the dialogue of religions. Saudi Arabia wants to present an image of openness and tolerance to the West while, at the moment, it imprisons hundreds of people for expressing their opinions."

Badawi was sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after he criticized Saudi Arabia's powerful clerics on a liberal blog he founded.

The first 50 were handed out last Friday, and London-based Amnesty International has said Badawi would receive that number once a week for 20 weeks.

Haidar fled to Egypt in April 2012 with their two daughters, Najwa and Miryam, and son, Tirad, before moving to Sherbrooke, Que., in November 2013.

At an earlier news conference Tuesday, representatives of the federal NDP, the Parti Quebecois, Quebec solidaire and Amnesty International Canada urged Ottawa and Quebec to do more to help free Badawi.

"We haven't heard a very firm condemnation from our prime minister and our premier of a partner — we're not talking about North Korea here but rather a country that has an embassy in Ottawa — that imprisons someone, sentences him to 10 years and imposes corporal punishment just because he spreads ideas," said Amnesty spokeswoman Anne Sainte-Marie.

International Development Minister Christian Paradis was asked about the case at a news conference in Quebec City and said the fact Badawi is not a Canadian citizen "complicates things."

"We don't have the same scope that we could have with our consular missions," Paradis said.

"We're very sympathetic toward him. The sentence is inhuman. Our thoughts are with his family and we will continue to put on as much pressure with the means at our disposal."

John Babcock, a spokesman for Paradis, called Badawi's public flogging a "violation of human dignity."

"While Mr. Badawi is not a Canadian citizen, we are following his case closely in the context of human rights and have raised his case in dialogue with Saudi Arabia," he said in an email.

Andrew Bennett, Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, also issued a statement last week to denounce the flogging.

Beatrice Vaugrante of Amnesty International Canada took issue with Paradis's comments.

"We don't accept that response," she said. "Obviously they can do much more but, usually with geopolitical reasons, we are not as vocal with Saudi Arabia as we are with some other countries.

"We accepted his family, his wife and his three children and we applaud Canada for doing that, but now we have to make efforts and we can make much more diplomatic efforts."

Amir Khadir, a Quebec member of the national assembly, called on Premier Philippe Couillard to use his contacts in Saudi Arabia to help free Badawi.

Couillard, who was a neurosurgeon in the Middle Eastern country in the early 1990s, said he doesn't believe that would be particularly helpful and that the onus is on the federal government.

"It's been more than 20 years since I lived there," he said at a separate event in Montreal. "I know the society and I understand part of that society too, but the solution here will be diplomatic.

"Expressing one's opinion is a right. It shouldn't be a crime. And the type of penalty that has been shown there is totally unacceptable according to our principles and our way of life."

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