Saudi Arabia to Quebec: Stay out of Raif Badawi case

Quebec's premier is not backing down in his opposition to the imprisonment and torture of blogger Raif Badawi, despite the Saudi ambassador's written caution to Quebec politicians to mind their own business.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador warns Canadian politicians to back off on case of jailed and tortured blogger

Raif Badawi's wife, seen here at a rally demanding his freedom earlier this winter, and his children live in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Quebec's premier is not backing down in his opposition to the imprisonment and torture of blogger Raif Badawi, despite the Saudi ambassador's written caution to Quebec politicians to mind their own business.

"We have made our opinion known. It's normal that we did so," Philippe Couillard told reporters as he made his way to a cabinet meeting in Quebec City Wednesday. 

Naif Bin Bandir Al-Sudairy, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Canada, sent a letter to Quebec's National Assembly in March telling them not to meddle in the case of the jailed blogger or criticize the country's human rights record.

In a letter obtained by CBC News and addressed to the speaker, the ambassador writes Saudi Arabia "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 (sic)," the letter, dated March 10, reads.

Badawi, 32, was the editor of the website Saudi Arabian Liberals when he was arrested in 2012. The site criticised religious authorities.

He was sentenced to 10 years, 1,000 lashes and a fine of one million Saudi riyals, or nearly $287,000. He has already received 50 lashes but subsequent whippings have been postponed, some for medical reasons and others for unknown reasons.

Denounced by Quebec government

Couillard and other Quebec politicians of all stripes have strongly denounced the kingdom's treatment of Badawi.

On Wednesday, Kathleen Weil, Quebec's immigration minister, said the government's position has not wavered. 

"It's mostly important for us to reiterate our firm opposition to his imprisonment and our defence of human rights," she said.

In February, the National Assembly unanimously passed a motion condemning the whipping of Badawi, and expressing support for his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children, who are refugees living in Sherbrooke, Que. 

The speaker's office sent a copy of the motion to the Saudi ambassador in Ottawa.

François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, said Wednesday he is "very proud" of that motion. 

"I'm glad they know we do not agree with what they do, including the case of Raif Badawi."

Badawi's supporters believe the ambassador's letter to Quebec politicians shows the Saudi government is feeling the public pressure over the case.

"We are happy they responded because it seems that they find the need to respond because the pressure is so great, but of course the content of what they say is not true," said Mireille Elchacar, a friend of the Badawi family who works for Amnesty International.

Saudis 'shocked' by Quebec's political stance

It's rare for a national government to send such a stinging letter to a provincial government, according to some human rights experts.

"Quebec has shown a unified, political stance against this and I think that has somewhat shocked Saudi Arabia," said Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. 

"It's embarrassed them and they feel they have to do something to set the record straight or at least try to be seen as arguing their position from a moral and legal perspective, but it's really hard to take that seriously," he said.


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.