Would giving this man Canadian citizenship help him — or make his life in a Saudi jail even worse?

The federal government appears reluctant to grant Canadian citizenship to a jailed blogger in Saudi Arabia whose wife and children live in this country.Weeks after the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion to ask the immigration minister to bestow citizenship on Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, a source told the Star on Wednesday that the federal government is “not convinced” such an act would help — and fears that a show of public support might in fact worsen his treatment.As a result, the federal government prefers, for now, to stick with diplomatic “back channels” to advocate for his release, said the source, on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.The case appears to be the latest to spotlight the fine line the Canadian government is trying to walk when it comes to using public pressure versus quiet diplomacy on the international stage.Badawi, who has championed support for religious pluralism and respect for minorities, was arrested in 2012 and accused of using the internet to “infringe on religious values” in violation of a Saudi Arabian law against cybercrime, according to his international legal team. He was later found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a steep fine.As his story sparked international uproar among human rights observers and political leaders, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children (now ages eight to 17) sought refuge in Canada. They recently became Canadian citizens and live in Sherbrooke, Que.In recent days, the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which has been advocating on Badawi’s behalf, has renewed attention to the case, alleging that Saudi authorities have launched a new investigation against Badawi and his wife for “inciting public opinion” and “harming the reputation of the Kingdom.”“This new investigation is likely an act of intimidation, intended to silence Raif and his family as the Kingdom faces growing backlash for its human rights abuses,” said Brandon Silver, an international human rights lawyer and the centre’s director of policy and projects.The centre says Badawi’s ongoing imprisonment is unjust and it has urged Saudi authorities to include Badawi among the list of prisoners who, as part of an annual tradition, will be granted royal pardons during Ramadan this year.“Nine years have been long enough. My kids are growing up without their father, and we all miss him terribly,” Haidar said in a recent statement.A written appeal previously sent to Saudi authorities by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former justice minister and the centre’s founding chair, argued that Badawi’s “moderate and reasonable voice” did not defame Islam or personally attack authority figures, posed no threat to national security and reflected a “deep patriotism.”The clemency appeal noted that Saudi Arabia’s “reputational crisis” following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, as well as other events, could intensify if the kingdom doesn’t send a “clear signal” to the world it is committed to reforming.A motion in late January calling on Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino to use his discretion under a section of the Citizenship Act, which allows granting of Canadian citizenship to a person facing “special and unusual hardship,” was put forward by Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and approved unanimously in the House. Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said he sees both sides of the argument when it comes to conferring citizenship upon Badawi.On the one hand, granting citizenship is the morally right thing to do and helps bring attention to the case. On the other hand, there’s a powerful counterargument that granting citizenship could make the Saudi government feel like it’s been backed into a corner and there’s a risk it could dig its heels in because it does not want to be seen as bending to outside pressure.“It’s not a democracy, but it still has its own domestic considerations,” Juneau said. “It might be reluctant to be seen as responding to external pressure.”Juneau says this sort of dilemma over whether Canada should exert public pressure on another country or use more discreet back-channel talks to get its way can be seen in this country’s handling of the ongoing detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China and terrorist kidnapping cases abroad.“Is it better when these terrorist kidnappings are managed with as low profile as possible or when there’s attention brought to the case? We don’t know the answer to that. There’s still a very serious debate,” he said.Juneau adds that going the quieter route can invite speculation whether the government is seeking to avoid political embarrassment.Silver told the Star conferring Canadian citizenship upon Badawi would “give Canada greater standing in its interventions on Mr. Badawi’s beh

Would giving this man Canadian citizenship help him — or make his life in a Saudi jail even worse?

The federal government appears reluctant to grant Canadian citizenship to a jailed blogger in Saudi Arabia whose wife and children live in this country.

Weeks after the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion to ask the immigration minister to bestow citizenship on Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, a source told the Star on Wednesday that the federal government is “not convinced” such an act would help — and fears that a show of public support might in fact worsen his treatment.

As a result, the federal government prefers, for now, to stick with diplomatic “back channels” to advocate for his release, said the source, on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The case appears to be the latest to spotlight the fine line the Canadian government is trying to walk when it comes to using public pressure versus quiet diplomacy on the international stage.

Badawi, who has championed support for religious pluralism and respect for minorities, was arrested in 2012 and accused of using the internet to “infringe on religious values” in violation of a Saudi Arabian law against cybercrime, according to his international legal team. He was later found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a steep fine.

As his story sparked international uproar among human rights observers and political leaders, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children (now ages eight to 17) sought refuge in Canada. They recently became Canadian citizens and live in Sherbrooke, Que.

In recent days, the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which has been advocating on Badawi’s behalf, has renewed attention to the case, alleging that Saudi authorities have launched a new investigation against Badawi and his wife for “inciting public opinion” and “harming the reputation of the Kingdom.”

“This new investigation is likely an act of intimidation, intended to silence Raif and his family as the Kingdom faces growing backlash for its human rights abuses,” said Brandon Silver, an international human rights lawyer and the centre’s director of policy and projects.

The centre says Badawi’s ongoing imprisonment is unjust and it has urged Saudi authorities to include Badawi among the list of prisoners who, as part of an annual tradition, will be granted royal pardons during Ramadan this year.

“Nine years have been long enough. My kids are growing up without their father, and we all miss him terribly,” Haidar said in a recent statement.

A written appeal previously sent to Saudi authorities by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former justice minister and the centre’s founding chair, argued that Badawi’s “moderate and reasonable voice” did not defame Islam or personally attack authority figures, posed no threat to national security and reflected a “deep patriotism.”

The clemency appeal noted that Saudi Arabia’s “reputational crisis” following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, as well as other events, could intensify if the kingdom doesn’t send a “clear signal” to the world it is committed to reforming.

A motion in late January calling on Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino to use his discretion under a section of the Citizenship Act, which allows granting of Canadian citizenship to a person facing “special and unusual hardship,” was put forward by Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet and approved unanimously in the House.

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said he sees both sides of the argument when it comes to conferring citizenship upon Badawi.

On the one hand, granting citizenship is the morally right thing to do and helps bring attention to the case. On the other hand, there’s a powerful counterargument that granting citizenship could make the Saudi government feel like it’s been backed into a corner and there’s a risk it could dig its heels in because it does not want to be seen as bending to outside pressure.

“It’s not a democracy, but it still has its own domestic considerations,” Juneau said. “It might be reluctant to be seen as responding to external pressure.”

Juneau says this sort of dilemma over whether Canada should exert public pressure on another country or use more discreet back-channel talks to get its way can be seen in this country’s handling of the ongoing detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China and terrorist kidnapping cases abroad.

“Is it better when these terrorist kidnappings are managed with as low profile as possible or when there’s attention brought to the case? We don’t know the answer to that. There’s still a very serious debate,” he said.

Juneau adds that going the quieter route can invite speculation whether the government is seeking to avoid political embarrassment.

Silver told the Star conferring Canadian citizenship upon Badawi would “give Canada greater standing in its interventions on Mr. Badawi’s behalf, including in requests for clemency and consular visits.”

“As well, (Badawi) is subject to a 10-year travel ban following the completion of his sentence, and Canadian citizenship may also help secure him a passport and safe passage to Canada despite the ban.”

There is precedent for this, Silver added, citing the federal government’s efforts under Pierre Elliott Trudeau to secure the release of Soviet dissident and human-rights advocate Anatoly Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in the late 1970s on espionage charges. According to a 1978 Canadian Press story, Trudeau told Soviet authorities “We would take him off their hands” and that the House had earlier given unanimous approval to grant Sharansky landed-immigrant status. (Sharansky was eventually released in 1986 and flew to Israel).

Asked Wednesday if the government planned to act on the motion regarding Badawi, Alexander Cohen, the minister’s press secretary said in a statement, “We continue to raise (Badawi’s) case at the highest levels and we have repeatedly called for clemency to be granted. We remain in contact with Ms. Haidar and we want to see Mr. Badawi reunited with his family. The recent motion demonstrates the concern of Parliament with regard to Mr. Badawi’s detention.”

Syrine Khoury, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, would not elaborate, saying, “We will continue to raise our concerns regarding (Badawi’s) situation in Riyadh and Ottawa.”

However the government source said Ottawa was “treading carefully” on the question of granting citizenship to Badawi.

“The idea it could confer benefits is tenuous,” the source said.

For one, the Saudis don’t recognize dual citizenship, so giving Badawi Canadian citizenship would basically amount to a symbolic gesture.

Secondly, the source said, there is concern the Saudis could perceive the act of granting citizenship as Canada unnecessarily “meddling” in their internal affairs and potentially hurt Badawi’s clemency bid and result in a deterioration of his conditions. (Badawi is allowed brief phone calls with his wife but is not allowed visitors, according to his international legal team).

Informed Wednesday of the government’s lukewarm position on granting citizenship to Badawi, Silver said public advocacy and private diplomacy are equally important and proved to be an effective combination in getting the recent release from detention of Loujain Alhathloul, the Saudi women’s rights activist and former UBC graduate.

The granting of citizenship to Badawi, Silver added, would give “great hope” to Badawi and to his family and potentially protect him from future reprisals.

“I don’t think symbolism is something that should be so quickly papered over.”

Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan

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