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Human-rights lawyer Cotler asks Trudeau to consider granting Saudi political prisoner permanent residency

Raif Badawi, a Saudi liberal, was convicted of publishing a blog and was sentenced to a 10 year jail term along with 1000 lashes for insulting Islam.

Christinne Muschi

Renowned international human-rights lawyer and former Liberal Justice minister Irwin Cotler is asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to consider giving Raif Badawi permanent residency, as a part of a larger effort to free the high-profile Saudi political prisoner.

Mr. Cotler made the pitch to the Prime Minister during a meeting on Parliament Hill Thursday, where he raised the pressing cases of numerous political prisoners around the world. The Canadian government has already sounded the alarm over the treatment of Mr. Badawi, a Saudi blogger, who is currently serving a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes as physical punishment for insulting Islam.

Mr. Cotler underlined the fact Mr. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their children recently became Canadian citizens.

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“In Ensaf Haidar and her three children, we have Canadian citizens. So it would seem to me that this would make a good case for giving Raif Badawi a status,” Mr. Cotler said.

“There are several options that could be considered, and we conveyed them to the Prime Minister this morning.”

In his conversation with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Cotler said he pointed to the case of Israeli politician and human-rights activist, Natan Sharansky. Mr. Sharansky received Canadian permanent residency in the early 1980s while he was jailed in the Soviet Union for Jewish activism; Mr. Cotler was representing him at the time.

Mr. Cotler said Mr. Trudeau seemed “receptive” to the suggestion, but did not commit to providing Mr. Badawi with any documents.

Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve said granting permanent residency to Mr. Badawi would send a significant signal to Saudi Arabia.

"It is a gesture that would ... send a strong message to Saudi Arabia that Canada and Canadians feel strongly about ensuring that Raif will be able to reunite with his family, at home in Canada, as soon as possible,” Mr. Neve said.

Ms. Haidar told reporters that her husband is now suffering from high blood pressure in prison and has had no contact with his sister, Samar Badawi, who was also recently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

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The Badawi cases have been a central issue in a tense diplomatic dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department called on the Saudis to release arrested civil-rights activists, including the Badawis, and expressed concern over a new crackdown on civil-rights activists in the Middle Eastern country. Saudi Arabia responded by expelling Canada’s ambassador and freezing new trade deals and investment with the country.

Mr. Cotler applauded the Trudeau government for its commitment to denouncing Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record and predicted Canada will see more political support for its position when the U.S. Congress and European Parliament return from their summer recesses in the fall.

Meanwhile, an online petition calling on all United Nations member states to support Canada in its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human-rights abuses has reached nearly 850,000 signatures over the past three weeks.

Mr. Cotler was on Parliament Hill launching a new advocacy project for political prisoners, which will bring together former political prisoners, their family members and international human-rights lawyers to “shatter the silence” on the continuing arrests of leading human-rights defenders around the world. He said the launch of the project, for which Mr. Trudeau expressed support, comes at a critical time of year.

“In the 45 years that I have been acting as counsel for political prisoners, I have noticed a pattern – that political prisoners tend to be arrested in the summer. And they are arrested in the summer because that’s when governments are seen to be on vacation, parliaments are not sitting and it is the hope of the imprisoning countries that it will be unnoticed."

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