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Politics Stéphane Dion urged to use Saudi arms deal to free Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi, a blogger imprisoned and flogged in Saudi Arabia for his views on Islam, is seen in a family photo provided by his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Sherbrooke, Que., with the couple’s three children.

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Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is being urged to use Canada's $15-billion combat vehicle deal with Saudi Arabia to seek clemency for imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi when he meets with senior members of the ruling monarchy in the Mideast country Monday.

Mr. Dion expects to meet one-on-one with the powerful son of the Saudi King, 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the Defence Minister and also in charge of reforming the Saudi economy.

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, Mr. Badawi's lawyer, sat down with Mr. Dion before he left for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will attend a meeting of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council.

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"I told him the Saudis have been so criticized internationally they might be looking for a way out to refurbish their image somehow," Mr. Cotler told The Globe and Mail in an interview. "He can leverage the fact of the $15-billion arms sale for which the government has been criticized and turn it around in securing Badawi's release."

Mr. Badawi, whose wife and three children live in Canada, 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.

The Saudis are using Canadian-made combat vehicles in Yemen right now to fight Shia-led Houthi rebels – machines very similar to those Canada will be shipping to the House of Saud under a $15-billion deal brokered by Ottawa. As The Globe and Mail first reported, Mr. Dion quietly approved export permits in April covering more than 70 per cent of the transaction with Saudi Arabia, a country with an abysmal human-rights record.

More than 6,000 people have been killed in a year of fighting in Yemen, according to the United Nations. The world body has denounced a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf nations for being responsible for twice the number of Yemeni civilian deaths as all other combatants, as well as causing a severe humanitarian crisis in an already poor country.

The Crown Prince has been criticized for leading the Sunni-dominated coalition after Houthi militants swept a Saudi ally from power last year.

"The Crown Prince might want to refurbish his image at this point personally as well as Saudi Arabia's so this might be a good opportunity," Mr. Cotler said. "They have been harmed by the UN with violations of international law in Yemen. They have been criticized by the UN with regard to their general treatment of women's rights and gender."

Mr. Badawi was jailed for "insulting Islam through electronic channels" and is reportedly in ill health. He recently received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament.

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Mr. Badawi's spouse, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children were granted sanctuary in Canada in 2013 and live in Sherbrooke, Que.

Mr. Cotler, an international human-rights expert who recently founded the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said he presented Mr. Dion with a written legal brief.

"I told him don't indulge the argument that we don't have standing because that's what the Saudis will say – that he is not a Canadian citizen," Mr. Cotler said. "I said we do have standing for a variety of reasons because his wife and children have refugee status in Quebec and … the Saudis have breached obligations to Canada in the sense that we are state parties to the torture convention."

Mr. Cotler, who is respected by Mr. Dion and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an international champion of human rights, has urged the Liberal government to reconsider its controversial $15-billion deal to sell combat vehicles to the Saudi kingdom.

It's not clear that everyone in Mr. Dion's office believes Canada has clout with Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights.

Just six weeks before he took a senior adviser job with Mr. Dion, academic Jocelyn Coulon wrote in Montreal's La Presse newspaper that Saudi Arabia has "bought the silence" of Western countries by awarding them lucrative contracts to supply it with military and civilian goods.

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Just last year, Saudi Arabia told Canadian legislators to stop criticizing their treatment of Mr. Badawi after the Quebec National Assembly passed a motion condemning the flogging sentence.

Naif Bin Bandir Al-Sudairy, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Canada, sent a letter to Quebec's legislature saying the kingdom "does not accept any form of interference in its internal affairs."

"The Kingdom does not accept at all any attack on it in the name of human rights, especially when its constitution is based on Islamic law, which guarantees human rights," the letter read.

Riyadh's forces have also used armoured vehicles against Saudi Arabia's Shia minority in the country's Eastern Province. Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, says Saudi authorities have deployed armoured vehicles against Shia civilians in the province more than 15 times since 2011.

The Shia enclave of al-Qatif is a hotbed of opposition to the Sunni-dominated government and unrest broke out most recently in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising as well as after Riyadh executed a dissident Shia cleric in January of 2016 who was a harsh critic of the House of Saud.

Mr. Dion is expected to tell the Saudis that Canada would be opposed to the use of Canadian light armored vehicles against Shia civilians in the kingdom. A government insider said Mr. Dion also will question how the Sunni-dominated kingdom is treating its Shia population, and raise the issue of equal rights for women.

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The Foreign Affairs Minister was personally invited to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council where discussions will centre on how to confront the expansion of Islamic State and al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula in the region.

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