Columns

Saudis Expel Ambassador, Freeze Trade and Flights After Canada Calls for Human Rights

In this Dec, 16, 2015, photo, Ensaf Haidar, wife of the jailed Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, shows a portrait of her husband as he is awarded the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg, France. (AP Photo/Christian Lutz)

Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador and froze trade deals with America’s northern neighbor after the Canadian ambassador stood up against the kingdom’s arbitrary arrests of human-rights advocates.

Since May, the Saudis have detained a number of women’s rights activists, detaining some without charge, according to Amnesty International. Last week,  Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada were detained. Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi, the blogger imprisoned with a sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years behind bars for exploring the themes of secularism and freedom in his writing. Al-Sada tried to run in municipal elections in 2015 but was denied; she has campaigned for women’s right to drive and against the kingdom’s male guardianship system.

Both women were under travel bans before their arrests. Samar Badawi was previously arrested in 2016 for human-rights activism; her brother Raif was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” Canada granted political asylum to Raif’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children; Haider is a free-speech and human-rights activist who advocates abolishing Saudi Arabia’s religious police and campaigns for the release of her husband.

Samar Badawi is the first Saudi woman to have sued her father to override his objection to her choice of husband. She was honored with the State Department’s 2012 International Women of Courage Award.

The diplomatic row started with a tweet from Canada’s foreign ministry:

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry accused Canada of “overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs” of the kingdom and announced retaliatory measures, including ordering Ambassador Dennis Horak to leave the country.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said this afternoon that Canada would stand firm. “I will say Canada is very comfortable with our position. We are always going to speak up for human rights; we’re always going to speak up for women’s rights; and that is not going to change,” she said at a news conference.

“Canadians expect our foreign policy to be driven by and to embody Canadian values, and that is how we intend to continue our foreign policy,” Freeland added.

The Saudi Education Ministry was also reportedly coming up with an “urgent plan” to move thousands of Saudi students currently taking classes in Canada; Freeland said “it would be a shame for those students if they were deprived of the opportunity to study here.”

Freeland noted that Samar Badawi is a Canadian citizen; “she and her family, therefore, merit special attention from the government of Canada and a lot of Canadian civil society has been speaking up for her.”

This afternoon, Saudi state airline Saudia posted on its Twitter account that flights to and from Toronto would be suspended beginning Aug. 13.

Regional neighbors including Qatar, the UAE, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt quickly leapt to Saudi Arabia’s defense.

A pro-Saudi-government Twitter posted a now-deleted image of an airliner heading toward Toronto’s CN Tower with the message, “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.'”

Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns, said the international community should stand with Canada and “push Saudi Arabian authorities to end this draconian crackdown and targeted repression of human rights defenders in the country.”

“Instead of pursuing human rights reform, the government of Saudi Arabia has chosen to lash out with punitive measures in the face of criticism. States with significant influence in Saudi Arabia – such as the USA, UK and France – have now remained silent for far too long,” Hadid said. “The world cannot continue to look the other way as this relentless persecution of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia continues. It is now time for other governments to join Canada in increasing the pressure on Saudi Arabia to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and end the crackdown on freedom of expression in the country.”