OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian officials said on Tuesday the government would plead for clemency for a Canadian man sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia but a senior opposition legislator said the announcement could put the prisoner in even more danger.
Mohamed Kohail, 23, of 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 sentenced to death abroad but last year the minority Conservative government said it would not do so for prisoners handled by what it called “democratic jurisdictions.”
Critics said this meant that when Canada did try to intervene in a particular case, it would be sending the message that Ottawa did not trust the judicial system in that country.
“We will be appealing for clemency,” said a spokesman for Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier.
The official opposition Liberal Party said it was worried that Riyadh would take the message the wrong way.
“When we ask for clemency, it seems the new rule of thumb means that we have fundamental disagreements with that country,” said Liberal Party legislator Dan McTeague, a former junior minister responsible for Canadians jailed abroad.
“I hope this won’t be taken as a slight (by the Saudis) but I can’t see how it won’t be. ... I fear we’re going to have the door slammed in our face,” he told Reuters.
Canada carried out its last death sentence in 1962 and abolished capital punishment in 1976. Opposition parties say the Conservatives want to bring back capital punishment, a charge the government denies.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Canada were damaged earlier this decade over William Sampson, a Canadian man who spent three years in a Saudi jail on a murder charge.
Sampson, released in 2003 after he was granted clemency by the Saudi king, said he was tortured in prison. Saudi authorities denied the charge.
Speaking earlier in the day, Bernier told reporters he was disappointed by the death sentence for Kohail.
“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,” he said.
Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois said the new policy on clemency was “an unforgivable blunder” and one that would undermine relations with the Saudis if Ottawa intervened.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer, editing by Todd Eastham