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Editorials Globe editorial: Why we must always denounce countries that silence their critics

Not too long ago, Canada came in for censorious commentary after Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted that Saudi Arabia should release the imprisoned activists Samar and Raif Badawi.

The argument against Ms. Freeland’s words, made by the Saudis but also by some Canadian conservatives, was that publicly scolding a regime’s human-rights abuses was counterproductive moral preening that only served to back the regime into a corner.

That attitude was wrong at the time: The Badawis have strong Canadian connections and were being unjustly jailed for the crime of speaking out against a despotic government.

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But now, as the Saudis pile outrage on outrage and the world’s beacon of freedom – we mean the United States, in case that’s not clear anymore – speaks out of the side of its mouth, the tut-tutting aimed at Canada looks even more misguided. We are being reminded of the critical importance of always speaking out.

Compare how Ms. Freeland handled the Badawi case with how Donald Trump is handling the case of Jamal Khashoggi.

It is becoming clear that Mr. Khashoggi, a Saudi national and regime critic living in the United States, was murdered and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad in the country’s Istanbul consulate earlier this month while trying to secure the paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée.

Some details remain in dispute. It has been reported that the Saudis are prepared to admit Mr. Khashoggi died in a botched interrogation. His body has not been found and likely won’t be.

On the available evidence, though, it now seems likely that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the hit – one of his frequent companions is a suspect – and that it was carried out in the most horrific fashion. Turkish authorities say the assassins tortured the 60-year-old journalist by severing his fingers during questioning, and then took a bone saw to his dead body.

All of this makes President Trump’s response to the affair that much more unacceptable. On Monday, he floated the absurd Saudi theory that “rogue” agents may have killed Mr. Khashoggi. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, took chummy photos with the Crown Prince in Riyadh on Tuesday and stressed the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

It looks for all the world like Mr. Trump and Prince Mohammed are preparing a whitewash. But then, the President’s soft touch with autocratic murderers is not new. When asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s record as a “killer,” Mr. Trump famously replied "There are a lot of killers” and “You think our country’s so innocent?”

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He said Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has authorized police to murder thousands of drug dealers and users, has done “an unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

After his recent summit with Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump said that the North Korean people “love” their dictator, who starves them, herds them into massive prison camps, and tortures and kills them for their political views.

Whether the U.S. President is airing this disturbing nonsense out of naiveté or genuine admiration for violent strongmen – it is probably some combination – the effect of his words has already been dire.

Russia seems to have grown more bold in its attempts to assassinate dissidents and perceived enemies, evidenced by its broad-daylight poisoning of the ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil earlier this year.

The Saudis are now taking the hint, too. It’s hard to imagine a more brazen crime than the torture and murder of Mr. Khashoggi in a consulate. The horrific violence of the killing appears calculated to shock.

Russia and Saudi Arabia are regimes that murder their own citizens no matter who is in the White House. We can never know for sure whether another U.S. president would have deterred the roaming assassination squads that the world’s tyrants seem ever more fearless in deploying.

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It is true, too, that past U.S. administrations have used stronger language about human rights while quietly indulging regimes like the House of Saud.

But words still matter, especially when they are used to denounce murder and despotism. It’s easy to call them hollow, and sometimes they are. But Mr. Trump’s silence and evasion are a reminder that plain words are easier to deride than do without.

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