Germany's vice chancellor said Saudi Arabia should not be surprised by the international interest in a "liberal" blogger on a trip to the kingdom. Riyadh said it would not tolerate global "interference" in the matter.
As he began his Middle East tour to promote exports in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel made it clear that he would not shy away from the theme of human rights while in the kingdom, specifically the lashing and decade-long jail sentence handed down to blogger Raif Badawi for "insulting Islam."
"I think it's quite normal that people the world over are interested in something like this. And that shouldn't surprise anyone here," the Social Democrat said in Riyadh, according to German news agency dpa.
Gabriel is set to bring up the subject of Badawi when he meets the newly crowned King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin on Sunday, as he promised a group of protestors who met him at Berlin's airport before his departure. He has brought with him a petition with 1.1 million signatures on the blogger's behalf as well as a letter from his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada, to the monarchy.
The opposition Green party has called on the German government to offer Badawi asylum, but Gabriel was quick to dampen these hopes, saying "we can't just simply take him out with us."
Ahead of his trip Gabriel spoke with protestors in Berlin who offered him a symbolic key to Badawi's cell
The Saudi Arabian government responded with harsh criticism on Saturday to anyone who criticized the kingdom's human rights record over the Badawi case.
The Foreign Ministry in Riyadh said the country would not "accept any form of interference in its domestic affairs," and that the media outcry over Badawi's punishment was an "attack on the independence" of the Saudi justice system, news service AFP reported.
Weapons off the table, for now
Another important topic following Gabriel on his visit is weapons exports, a theme on which he plans to maintain his hard line despite criticism from coalition partners the Christian Democrats: German help for domestic defense, yes, but the vice chancellor is against heavy weapons for the conservative kingdom.
Gabriel has long been an outspoken critic of the fact that Germany is the world's third largest exporter of weapons, saying at a conference of German and Saudi companies that "German firms could provide an important service in the modernization of infrastructure" instead.
Except for simulators and military software, Gabriel, who is also the minister of economy and energy, has banned weapons exports to several states, saying German law did not allow for sending munitions to countries that did not belong to the European Union or NATO, except for in rare exceptions. Gabriel chose to exclude weapons exporters from the economic delegation following him on the trip.
Gabriel acknowledged Saudi Arabia's important role as an ally in the fight against "Islamic State" (IS) terrorists, and said that despite a cessation on the export of heavy weaponry, the kingdom would have Germany's full support when it came to defending itself.
es/cmk (AFP, dpa)