John Baird Says Raif Badawi Flogging Punishment Violates Freedom Of Expression

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OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has publicly denounced the flogging of a Saudi blogger, calling for clemency in the case.

In a statement, the minister responded for the first time to the sentence handed down last May to blogger Raif Badawi, who received 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after he criticized Saudi Arabia's clerics on a liberal blog he founded.

The first 50 of those lashes were delivered last Friday; Badawi is expected to receive 50 more every week for the next 19 weeks.

"Canada is deeply concerned by the public flogging of Raif Badawi. This punishment is a violation of human dignity and freedom of expression, and we call for clemency in this case," Baird said in a statement released early Wednesday evening.

Baird said the government "has made representations" to Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Ottawa, while Canada's ambassador in Riyadh has met with the head of the country's human rights commission and is seeking a meeting with the Saudi Arabian government.

Marc Garneau and Paul Dewar, the foreign affairs critics for the Liberals and NDP, respectively, called on Baird earlier Wednesday to publicly condemn the action.

They said it was not enough that Canada's religious freedom ambassador and development minister have already spoken out against Badawi's treatment in the past week.

Baird is currently travelling in Egypt where he is to press for the release of an imprisoned Egyptian-Canadian journalist.

Garneau said he applauds Baird's efforts to try to win the freedom of Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and he wants to see the same public effort on Badawi's behalf.

"The government should be speaking through the minister of foreign affairs. This is not an issue where the ambassador for freedom of religion is the proper voice," said Garneau.

"The foreign affairs minister should be speaking out loudly and clearly and asking for the release of Mr. Badawi."

Garneau and Dewar both noted how the government defended free speech in the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last week, and say Badawi's case raises the same issues.

"Even though we have relations with Saudi Arabia, whether it's through trade or a partner in the coalition against the Islamic State, it doesn't prevent us from speaking," said Garneau. "This is one of those instances where we should be doing it."

Dewar noted that Baird was in Saudi Arabia this past October and as far as he can tell, he made no public statement condemning the sentence.

"We find that inconsistent. Why is it we speak out on some cases when it comes to freedom of expression?" said Dewar, prior to Baird's office releasing his statement early Wednesday evening.

"When it comes to Saudi Arabia, why don't we hear that same voice? We need consistency when we talk about basic human rights."

Badawi is not a Canadian citizen but his wife fled Saudi Arabia in April 2012 with their two daughters before settling in Sherbrooke, Que., in November 2013.

"While Mr. Badawi is not a Canadian citizen, we will continue to make our position known, both publicly and through diplomatic channels," Baird said.

A leading figure in the Saudi Arabian royal family is expected to cross paths with Baird in coming weeks. The Foreign Affairs Department is planning for a visit by Prince Turki Al Faisal, a member of the House of Saud and a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., sometime in mid-February, The Canadian Press has learned.

Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, said Tuesday in Montreal that Saudi Arabia was acting like it was stuck in the middle ages.

Responding to her remarks, International Development Minister Christian Paradis said the fact Badawi is not a Canadian citizen "complicates things," but he called the sentence "inhuman."

"Our thoughts are with his family and we will continue to put on as much pressure with the means at our disposal," Paradis added.


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