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Trudeau doubles down on Canadian criticism of Saudi Arabia

The prime minister is the latest Canadian official to take aim at Saudi human rights record amid diplomatic spat
The two countries have been embroiled in a diplomatic dispute for weeks (AFP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concern on Thursday over reports that human rights activists in Saudi Arabia face the death penalty in the latest and most high-profile statement to date in an ongoing diplomatic spat between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia and Canada are locked in a diplomatic dispute triggered by Canadian criticism of the kingdom's human rights record, but Trudeau said Canada continues to "engage diplomatically" with Saudi Arabia.

Human rights groups say Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five human rights activists, including, for the first time, a woman - Israa al-Ghomgham.

Executions, most commonly beheadings, usually take place in Saudi Arabia after the decision is ratified by the king - in this case, King Salman bin Abdulaziz. At least 65 people have been executed in 2018 so far, according to the Cornell Law School Center on the Death Penalty.

The defendants had been in pre-trial detention for nearly three years on charges of organising anti-government protests, incitement to disobedience of the ruler, and providing moral support to participants in anti-government protests in the Shia-majority eastern region of Qatif.

"I think it's important to have positive relationships with countries around the world," Trudeau told a press conference in British Columbia.

"At the same time, we have expressed our concern with the sentence handed down by Saudi Arabia, our concern for defending human rights and our shared values all around the world," he said.

"Canada will continue to stand up strongly for human rights," he added.

The Saudi government has not confirmed that the activists face the death penalty.

Two weeks ago, Canada sparked fury in Riyadh by calling for the immediate release of detained activists, including award-winning women's rights campaigner Samar Badawi.

Saudi Arabia froze all new trade and investments, moved to pull out thousands of Saudi students from Canadian universities and pledged to stop all medical treatment programmes in Canada. State airline Saudia also suspended flights to Toronto.

In the end, the kingdom gave its students an extension until 22 September according to several universities.

Earlier this week, Saudi authorities detained friends and relatives of Canada-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz.

“They have been arrested to blackmail me into stopping my online criticism of the human rights violations committed by the Saudi government,” Abdulaziz told Middle East Eye on Thursday.