Irwin Cotler is chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and the former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. He serves as international legal counsel to imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi and his family.
When Saudi Arabia announced last week that it would end the punishments of flogging and execution of child offenders, it was intended, in the words of the Supreme Court, to “bring the kingdom in line with international human-rights norms.”
In doing so, the court reflected what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, said when he came to power in 2017. Vowing to return Saudi Arabia to a “moderate Islam that is open to all religions and open to the world,” MBS has lifted bans on women driving, mixed-gender concerts, and cinemas, while launching an ambitious economic and social plan.
Last week’s court decisions will have immediate and important consequences: sparing six young offenders at risk of execution, as well as nullifying the flogging punishment of Raif Badawi. Mr. Badawi, whose wife and three children are now Canadian citizens, was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for giving his fellow citizens a space online to discuss issues of public concern more freely. The flogging was suspended in 2015 as a result of international outrage elicited by the first 50 lashes in a public square.
But Saudi Arabia’s purported reforms should not obscure the widespread repression and the accompanying untold, unprecedented human cost that continues to mount.
Last year, Saudi Arabia executed a record number of people, including child offenders. On April 23 alone, the authorities carried out a mass execution of 37 people. Most were convicted after being tortured; some had been held for more than a year in solitary confinement.
Many others have suffered, and even died, due to the systematic denial of medical treatment by prison authorities. Just last week – lost among the headlines lauding the legal reforms – we learned of the death of Abdullah al-Hamid, the architect behind a decades-long civil-society movement for freedom and democracy in Saudi Arabia. He was repeatedly arrested and tortured in detention leading up to his final imprisonment in 2013. According to the World Organisation Against Torture, the authorities denied him a necessary life-saving heart operation for months until he fell into a coma on the prison floor. He tragically died on the first day of Ramadan.
Others, like the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have been targeted extrajudicially and even beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders. A Saudi official recently revealed that the operation to brutally murder and dismember Mr. Khashoggi was “based on a standing order from Saudi intelligence to bring dissidents home.” And just a year after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi Arabia brazenly hosted an international media forum to sanitize its actual record; since MBS came to power, the number of imprisoned journalists has tripled.
When the ban on women driving was lifted, Saudi authorities also carried out mass arrests of the women who fought for that change. These women’s rights defenders were reportedly subjected to months of torture, including beatings, waterboarding, electrocution, solitary confinement, and sexual assault.
While the recent reforms should be welcomed, the international community, Canada included, cannot give Saudi Arabia a pass.
Canada should call for the release of Raif Badawi during Ramadan, permitting him to reunite with his family in Quebec. Mr. Badawi’s imprisonment and ill-treatment is a standing source of pain and grief for his family. It should be particularly noted, too, that Mr. Badawi was convicted for saying in 2012 what the Crown Prince has been saying for the last two years. The Crown Prince responded to, but has not yet acted upon, our clemency petition conveyed to him two years ago, anchored in Saudi and Islamic law and its principles of justice and compassion.
Abdullah al-Hamid’s death underscores the need to release political prisoners such as Mr. Badawi now, given their vulnerability to the spread of coronavirus in prison.
Canada should also call for the release of the women who were punished for calling for the very reform that MBS instituted, including Raif’s sister Samar Badawi and UBC graduate Loujain al-Hathloul.
Finally, in September, Canada will host the next Global Conference on Media Freedom, which is scheduled for just before Saudi Arabia hosts the G20 summit in November. This is an opportunity for Canada and the international community to leverage calls for Saudi Arabia to free its imprisoned journalists.
It’s not just the right thing to do. As is the case with political prisoners, it will be in MBS’s self-interest to release them. He can either come to the G20 as a human-rights violator in the docket of the accused, or as the prospective reformer he claims to be.
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