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Gabriel: Badawi case strains German-Saudi ties

After talks with King Salman in Riyadh, Germany's Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has said that the imprisonment and public lashing of blogger Raif Badawi, convicted of "insulting Islam," is testing bilateral ties.

Social Democrat Gabriel told reporters in Riyadh after his meeting with King Salman that Raif Badawi's situation was affecting his diplomatic and trade mission to the Gulf powerhouse.

"I think everything we are doing is helping him, but no one - not even the family - thinks that there will be a quick solution," Gabriel said.

Ahead of the meeting, Gabriel had said he would point out to the king that the severity of Badawi's punishment of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes is "unfathomable to us and that it will of course strain bilateral ties." He added that he also called for the release of Badawi's lawyer, who has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Deutschland Sigmar Gabriel Abreise in die Golf-Region

Before leaving Berlin, Gabriel was handed a 1-million-strong E-petition, ugring him to lobby Badawi's case

Also the minister for energy and the economy, Gabriel traveled to Saudi Arabia with almost 80 German business leaders in tow. On Saturday, he held talks with Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf. According to the German government's statistics agency, Destatis, bilateral trade between the two countries cleared 10 billion euros ($10.8 billion at current exchange rates) in 2014, the lion's share being German exports.

Badawi was found guilty of insulting Islam in his blog "Free Saudi Liberals," in which he had urged Saudis to share their opinions about the role of religion in the country. The case prompted harsh criticism from human rights groups, especially after Badawi's first set of lashes in January. Subsequent planned lashings for the DW Freedom of Speech award-winning blogger have been called off, with officials citing medical grounds.

Saudi 'surprise and dismay' at media reaction

Saudi Arabia made its first official mention of the case on Saturday, as Gabriel arrived, saying it "expresses its intense surprise and dismay" at international media coverage of the case. The unnamed foreign ministry official, quoted on the state-owned Saudi Press Agency, said the kingdom "does not accept any interference in its internal affairs," adding that its judiciary was impartial and independent.

The visit to Saudi Arabia also courted headlines because of German arms exports to the region, a sensitive topic for many in the country. An opposition parliamentary inquiry this week revealed that Saudi Arabia had been a key customer for German weapons makers in recent years.

One of the main areas officially up for discussion during the trade mission is potential partnerships in the renewable energy sector, with Saudi Arabia almost as rich in sunshine and wind as it is in terms of oil reserves. Further strategies to combat the self-styled "Islamic State" terror group are also expected to figure heavily in the talks.

msh/sms (AP, dpa, AFP)

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