March 4, 2008 / 10:22 PM / 10 years ago

Canada assailed over Saudi death sentence case

OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian man facing execution in Saudi Arabia is in increased danger because Ottawa has decided to stop automatically pleading for clemency in the cases of citizens sentenced to death abroad, opposition legislators said on Tuesday.

Mohamed Kohail, a 23-year-old from Montreal, was convicted on Sunday of killing a teenager in a schoolyard brawl in Jeddah in 2007. He has 80 days to appeal.

Ottawa traditionally pleaded for clemency for all Canadians abroad but last year the Conservative government said it would not do so for those sentenced to death by what it called “democratic jurisdictions.”

Opposition members of Parliament said this meant that when Canada did try to intervene in a particular case, it would be sending the message it did not trust the judicial system in that country.

“The government is going to have to either change its mind or insult the Saudi Arabian kingdom,” said Liberal Party legislator Dan McTeague.

“What makes this case all that much more difficult, if not impossible, has been the precluding of (asking for clemency), which I think is irresponsible,” he told reporters.

Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois said the new policy was “an unforgivable blunder” and one that would undermine relations with the Saudis if Ottawa formally intervened.

The foreign ministry said it was “deeply disappointed” by the death sentence and was following the case closely. It would not say whether Canada planned to appeal for clemency.

“We’re going to help the family ... so we’ll do our best to have another decision (after the appeal). We want to have a decision that will be in line with our values,” Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier told reporters.

Canada carried out its last death sentence in 1962 and abolished capital punishment in 1976. Opposition parties say the minority Conservative government wants to bring back capital punishment, a charge the government denies.

“Our government is not standing up for Canadians facing capital punishment abroad. That’s ... never been approved by Parliament, it certainly hasn’t been approved by the Canadian people,” said Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democrats.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Canada were badly strained earlier this decade over the case of William Sampson, a Canadian man who spent three years in a Saudi jail on a murder charge.

Sampson, released in 2003 after being granted clemency by the Saudi king, said he was tortured in prison. Saudi authorities denied the charge.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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