In rare US criticism, Pence urges Saudis to free blogger Badawi


Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday urged Saudi Arabia to free Raif Badawi, a blogger jailed and publicly whipped for insulting Islam, in a rare criticism of the US ally as he vowed to champion religious freedom worldwide.

Speaking to dozens of government ministers who flew in for a conference on religious liberty, Pence offered usual US denunciations of adversaries such as China, Iran and Venezuela.

But Pence also raised the case of Badawi, whose public flogging in a Jeddah square in 2015 prompted an international uproar, as he grouped him with prisoners from Eritrea, Mauritania and Pakistan whom he considered as being held for religious expression.

"In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi is still in prison for the alleged crime of criticising Islam through electronic means," Pence said.

"All four of these men have stood in defence of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure. And the American people stand with them," Pence said.

"So today, the United States of America calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to respect the rights of conscience of these men and let these men go," Pence said to applause.

President Donald Trump's administration has faced anger from rival Democrats and some fellow Republicans for not doing more to punish Saudi Arabia over last year's killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a writer and US resident who was strangled and dismembered after being lured into the ultraconservative kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

Trump instead has hailed Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and said that human rights concerns should be secondary due to the kingdom's ample purchases of US weapons and shared hostility toward Iran.

Canada, which granted Badawi's wife and three children asylum in 2013, has been particularly outspoken on his case, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling his release a top priority.

Saudi Arabia has reacted with fury to Canada's statements, last year pulling its ambassador and severing trade ties in what was widely seen as a warning to other nations. (AFP)

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