The Saudi Arabian government decided on Sunday to give the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh 24 hours to leave the country and recalled its own envoy to Canada after the embassy urged Saudi officials to release arrested civil rights activists.
Saudi Arabia also suspended new trade and investment with Canada. “The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is in contravention of the most basic international norms and all the charters governing relations between states,” the Saudi foreign ministry said on Twitter.
Earlier, the Canadian foreign ministry and the Canadian embassy in Riyadh expressed concerns over the arrests of human rights activists, including award-winning gender rights activist Samar Badawi, in a new wave of detentions. They called on Saudi authorities to “immediately release” the detainees.
The Saudi foreign ministry voiced anger over the Canadian statement.
“Using the phrase (immediately release) in the Canadian statement is very unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states,” the Saudi ministry said on Twitter.
On 1 August, Saudi authorities arrested internationally recognised women’s rights activist Samar Badawi and Eastern Province activist Nassima Al-Sadah. They are the latest victims of an unprecedented government crackdown on the women’s rights movement that began on 15 May 2018 and has resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen activists.
Since May, a number of leading women’s rights activists and campaigners in Saudi Arabia, including Loujain Al-Hathloul, Iman Al-Nafjan, and Aziza Al-Yousef, have been detained for peaceful human rights work. Human rights groups say that many have been detained without charge and may face trial before the counter-terror court and up to 20 years in prison for their activism.
While Badawi, a recipient of the United States’ 2012 International Women of Courage Award, is best known for challenging Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, Al-Sadah, from the coastal city of Qatif, has also long campaigned both for abolishing the guardianship system and lifting the driving ban.
“The arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima Al-Sadah signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“After the recent arbitrary arrests of businesspeople, women’s rights activists, and reformist clerics, Saudi Arabia’s allies and partners should question what ‘reform’ really means in a country where the rule of law is disdainfully ignored,” she added.
Similarly, Amnesty International has urged the international community to speak up for detained human rights defenders. “The international community must push Saudi Arabian authorities to end this draconian crackdown and targeted repression of human rights defenders in the country”, said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns.
“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 added.
“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.”
Saudi women’s rights activists have not only petitioned successive government authorities to reform discriminatory laws and policies, but also sought to change societal attitudes. While the government has recently introduced limited reforms, including allowing women to enter some professions previously closed to them, as well as lifting the driving ban, the male guardianship system—the main impediment to the realisation of women’s rights, according to activists—remains largely intact.
Under this system, women must obtain permission from a male guardian—a father, brother, husband, or even son—to travel abroad, obtain a passport, enrol in higher education, get a life-saving abortion, be released from a prison or shelter, or marry.
Saudi authorities accused several of those detained of serious crimes, including “suspicious contact with foreign parties” under thin legal pretences. Government-aligned media outlets have carried out an alarming campaign against them, branding them “traitors”.
The Saudi newspaper Okaz reported that nine of those detained will be referred for trial to the Specialised Criminal Court, originally established to try detainees held in connection with terrorism offences. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison.