NEWS

Raif Badawi case: What he has in common with Jason Kenney

03/03/2015 05:59 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi risks being beheaded in Saudi Arabia for clicking "like" on a Facebook page that aims to defend Christians targeted by ISIS, part of a social media campaign that has also drawn support from Canadian Conservative MPs.

Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, says Saudi judicial authorities have recommended he face a new trial on charges of apostasy, which carries an automatic sentence of death by beheading.

The Facebook "like" is one of the key pieces of evidence in the apostasy charge against Badawi.

The Facebook page to defend Christians targeted by ISIS is one of several campaigns on social media that have adopted as a symbol the Arabic letter "ن" or "n" ("nun"), which stands for Nazarene. The letter reportedly has been used by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, to mark the doors of Christians for subsequent persecution.

Some Conservative politicians have "liked" the same campaign. Defence Minister Jason Kenney has even added the Arabic letter to his Twitter handle.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Monday that Canada was aware of the talk of a retrial on capital charges, calling the Badawi case "a violation of human dignity."

"We continue to call for clemency in this case," said Amy Mills.

$15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia

But Canada’s condemnation of the oil-rich country has been muted. Ottawa is keen not to damage ties that include an alliance against ISIS and Canada’s largest-ever foreign arms deal, worth $15 billion.

Badawi, whose wife and children escaped Saudi Arabia to Sherbrooke, Que., has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islamic values," "promoting liberal thought" and "going beyond the realm of obedience" by suggesting the kingdom should become more democratic.

Because 1,000 lashes at once would likely be fatal, Saudi judges decreed that Badawi is to be whipped in instalments of 50 lashes each for 20 weeks. The first lashing was carried out in January in front of an approving crowd after Friday prayers at a Jeddah mosque.

But Saudi King Abdullah, who has since died, suspended the second flogging after fierce international criticism. It now seems that the country’s powerful Islamic judiciary wants to raise the stakes.

The ن campaign was started by Arabs who fear the region’s Christian heritage is being extinguished by Islamic fundamentalists. The Harper government has expressed the same fears, even arguing with the United Nations over whether it should prioritize Christian Syrian refugees over majority Muslims.

In Saudi Arabia, though, Badawi’s support for Christians has been portrayed as a betrayal of Islam.

Baird notes 'positive' change

Like many Western governments, the Harper government has been reluctant to criticize Saudi Arabia’s record of religious extremism, even while condemning ISIS’s use of the knife.

Saudi Arabia uses beheading to punish non-violent crimes including "sorcery" and apostasy.

Last year there were 83 beheadings. A Lebanese man is currently awaiting beheading in Saudi Arabia for the crime of "predicting the future."

Last Oct. 16, then foreign minister John Baird visited the kingdom a day after it sentenced a prominent Shia critic of the royal family, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, to "beheading, with the crucifixion of the body." In that punishment, the head is typically sewn back on the neck so the body can be displayed in a public area.

The death sentence ended one of the most important political trials in Saudi Arabia in many years, and rioting broke out in the kingdom on the day Baird began his visit.

Nimr had long accused the Saudi state of authoritarianism and discrimination against Shia. But he had also disavowed violence, saying, "The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of lead."

Baird met that day with some of Saudi Arabia’s most senior leadership, including Crown Prince Salman, who has since become king. Yet according to an official release by Foreign Affairs, Baird chose to praise the kingdom’s rights record:

"On the situation of human rights, Baird noted the increased participation of women in Saudi Arabian society, including the important role they have assumed within the Shura Council, and encouraged continued progress in this positive direction."

The same week Baird was praising Saudi Arabia’s progress on women’s rights, the country warned women not to take part in a protest against the ban on women driving. Two women who ignored the ban and drove their cars have since been charged in terrorism court.

Officials closely followed Nimr case

Officials at Foreign Affairs said they would not discuss the content of Baird’s private conversations with Saudi officials.

But documents from Canada’s embassy in Riyadh, obtained by CBC News, show that Canadian officials were following the Nimr case closely, and the Department of Foreign Affairs had received several appeals to intervene.

In the same week Baird visited, emails from the embassy went out to Ottawa and Canadian diplomatic offices across the Middle East, saying the Riyadh mission "will continue to closely monitor the case, but does not recommend further action at this time."

The cables noted that the execution might not be carried out, and under the heading "Implications," discussed the impact on oil production.

"Even were the death sentence against Nimr al-Nimr to be executed, subsequent protests could be contained by the strong Saudi presence in the region, and the production of oil in the strategic eastern provinces would likely be impacted modestly, in a worst-case scenario," the cable said.

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