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Speaker George Furey (pictured) and senators Peter Harder, Percy Downe and Vern White went this week in a parliamentary exchange program that also includes a visit to Oman, the Speaker’s office said.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Weeks after an international human-rights group revealed that Saudi Arabia had executed more than 150 people last year, a group of Canadian senators has quietly travelled to Riyadh for an official visit with Saudi counterparts.

Speaker George Furey and senators Peter Harder, Percy Downe and Vern White went this week in a parliamentary exchange program that also includes a visit to Oman, the Speaker's office said. British human-rights organization Reprieve reported in December that Saudi Arabia executed at least 153 people in 2016, nearing 2015's record high of 158.

Mr. Furey's office did not say the senators would raise Saudi Arabia's human rights with Saudi officials. It said the senators plan to promote Canada's postsecondary educational system, discuss the refugee crisis in the region, review strategies in the fight against terrorism and examine energy policies.

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"The Parliament of Canada believes that engagement and exchanges with all countries can be a positive force leading to change. The goal of parliamentary exchanges such as this one are to pursue parliamentary diplomacy, an important aspect of the work done by the Speaker of the Senate," Mr. Furey's office said.

The Senate did not announce the trip ahead of time. Mr. Furey's office said he travels regularly and advisories are not typically issued beforehand, in part for security reasons.

However, the Saudi Press Agency posted a news release about Mr. Furey's arrival in Riyadh last weekend. The agency said Mr. Furey is there for several days at the invitation of Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh, speaker of the Kingdom's Shura Council, with whom he will hold talks.

The Tories criticized the Senate's lack of transparency about the trip.

"Canadians shouldn't have to rely on announcements from the Saudi government to find out what Canada is doing when it comes to engaging with a country like Saudi Arabia," said Garnett Genuis, Conservative deputy critic for human rights and religious freedom.

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NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said Mr. Furey's visit comes as the Canadian government appears to be "cozying up" to Saudi Arabia.

Canada has been highly criticized over a $15-billion deal to sell weaponized vehicles to the country, which is regularly ranked among "the worst of the worst" on human rights by independent watchdog Freedom House. During a visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to a Halifax coffee shop on Monday, a man stood by the entrance with a sign reading "Military Support to Saudi Arabia is Murder."

The high-profile case of Raif Badawi, a writer sentenced to 10 years in a Saudi prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam," also has a Canadian connection – his family lives in Canada.

Amnesty International Secretary General Alex Neve said Mr. Furey must press the regime on human rights, including Mr. Badawi's case.

"I'm sure there will a whole variety of different kinds of exchanges he [Mr. Furey] has, some of which are more public, some of which are more private. And some may lend themselves better than others to being frank about human-rights concerns," Mr. Neve said.

The Prime Minister's Office deferred questions to Mr. Furey's office, which said that a "vast majority" of the costs, including airfare and per diems, are covered by the Parliament Exchanges Budget. The host parliament covers costs such as hospitality.

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With a report from The Canadian Press

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