Trudeau prods Saudi crown prince again on case that sparked Twitter row

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release women’s rights activist Samar Badawi when he spoke to him at a dinner in Buenos Aires Friday night, a senior government official told CBC News.

The kingdom is ultra-sensitive about the case of detained women's rights activist Samar Badawi

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pressed for the release of women's rights activist Samar Badawi when he spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a dinner in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday night, a senior government official said. (G20 Press Office via AP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release women's rights activist Samar Badawi when he spoke to him at a dinner hosted by Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Buenos Aires Friday night, a senior government official told CBC News.

In a press conference after the closure of the G20 summit, Trudeau said he had spoken to the crown prince about the Jamal Khashoggi murder, the case of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi and the war in Yemen.

But he didn't mention that he had also revived the topic of Raif Badawi's sister Samar, who was imprisoned for her activities on behalf of women's rights in the kingdom.

The Saudi government appears to be extraordinarily sensitive about her case. The last time Canada pressed Saudi Arabia to release Samar Badawi, the kingdom responded furiously, expelling Canada's ambassador, suspending direct flights between the countries, and ordering thousands of Saudi students and medical residents to leave Canada.

Saudi Arabia also ordered brokers who buy grains for the kingdom to stop all purchases of Canadian wheat and barley. It even obliged Saudi nationals receiving treatment in Canadian hospitals to pack their bags and seek treatment somewhere else.

Many governments in the Arab and Islamic world sided with the Saudis. In the West the flare-up was widely seen as a powerful young ruler flexing his muscles to send a message to the West that Saudi Arabia will not be lectured on human rights.

The extreme Saudi reaction came as a surprise because Canada had frequently pressed Saudi Arabia on the case of her brother — both privately and publicly, including on Twitter — for two years and under both the Harper and Trudeau governments.

It was only when Canada mentioned Samar Badawi in a tweet in August that the kingdom reacted.

Flogging, electric shocks and sexual abuse

Samar Badawi was one of a group of women's rights activists who were arrested in May, around the time that Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving.

At the same time the Saudi royal family announced to the world that women could now drive, it began to pick up the very female activists who had been pushing for the change.

One of them was Samar Badawi.

Samar Badawi, centre, seen here between former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama in 2012, is being held in Dhahban prison near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Last month, Amnesty International reported that relatives of the women had learned that they had been tortured in prison and in some cases, sexually abused while being held in a hotel by masked male guards.

Another woman was reportedly hung from a ceiling. Several were said to be in very poor condition following floggings and electric shock torture, with some shaking uncontrollably or unable to stand, and one suicide attempt.

The report says Samar Badawi is being held at Dhahban prison near Jeddah on the Red Sea coast.

"Only a few weeks after the ruthless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, these shocking reports of torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment, if verified, expose further outrageous human rights violations by the Saudi authorities," said Amnesty's director of research for the Middle East, Lynn Malouf.

Saudi Arabia has said the women are being held for "contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country's stability and social fabric." It's not clear if one of those foreign entities is the government of Canada, which extended asylum to Raif Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, who has since become a Canadian citizen. The women have been described as traitors in Saudi government media.

The Saudi justice system is unusually opaque and charges can be drawn up on an ad hoc basis, since the country has no conventional criminal code, but rather judges who interpret and adapt Shariah law to each case.

Saudis on the defensive

Trudeau's willingness to press the Saudis again on Samar Badawi's case says much about how the position of Mohammed bin Salman has weakened since August's Twitter row.

The young prince is now struggling to maintain his position as foreign governments distance themselves from him and unconfirmed reports emerge from the kingdom that members of Saudi Arabia's royal family are plotting to replace him.

On Friday in Buenos Aires, the prince, who is often referred to simply as "MBS," was challenged by French President Emmanuel Macron. Their exchange was caught on camera and some of the audio was also captured.

"Don't worry," an awkwardly-smiling Mohammed told Macron. "I am worried," replied the stern-faced French leader.

Isolation loves company

But Prince Mohammed did find one ally in Buenos Aires who not only wasn't embarrassed to be seen with him, but was positively effusive.

Russia's Vladimir Putin made a spectacle of his encounter with the prince at the first leaders' plenary session, where the two leaders sat next to each other laughing and chatting.

Both men now have something in common. Many believe they ordered reckless murders of their own citizens on other countries' territory: MBS in Istanbul, and Putin with nerve gas and polonium in the U.K.