Saudi Arabia Expels Canadian Ambassador Over Rights Criticism

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador on Monday and announced a freeze on “all new business” between the two countries in response to Canadian complaints about the arrests of two Saudi rights activists.

In a series of uncharacteristically aggressive statements on its Twitter feed, the Saudi Foreign Ministry declared the Canadian ambassador, Dennis Horak, persona non grata and gave him 24 hours to leave the kingdom.

The Canadian Foreign Ministry issued a statement last week calling for the release of the activists, Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist who was arrested last week, and her brother, Raif Badawi, a blogger who is serving a prison term for administering a website that criticized the country’s religious establishment.

“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote on Twitter, “and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

Saudi Arabia struck back on Monday, calling the post “overt and blatant interference” in its internal affairs.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said that “any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs.”

It also warned other nations that made similar criticisms could also face consequences.

“Canada and all other nations need to know that they can’t claim to be more concerned than the kingdom over its own citizens,” the ministry said.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy whose legal system is based on the strict enforcement of Sharia, or Islamic law, has long faced complaints from Western governments and rights organizations over many of its judicial practices, including beheading criminals and imprisoning people who criticize the government.

Samar Badawi has a long history of campaigning against Saudi laws.CreditAnders Wiklund/EPA, via Shutterstock

Historically, such complaints have been handled quietly in Riyadh, without ramifications for countries that expressed concerns. The reason for the strong public reaction on Monday was not immediately clear.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 33-year-old de facto ruler, is pushing for vast social and economic changes in the country.

Since emerging from the shadows when his father, King Salman, took the throne in 2015, he has granted women the right the drive, opened movie theaters and expanded entertainment options in the ultraconservative kingdom. He has also worked to soften the image and implementation of the kingdom’s official school of Islam, known abroad as Wahhabism.

Critics say that these changes have been accompanied by an authoritarian streak that brooks no criticism. Under Prince Mohammed’s watch, the kingdom has locked up clerics and activists and imprisoned businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on accusations of corruption.

Even as the kingdom granted women the right to drive, it has detained more than a dozen prominent women and men who had campaigned for the right. Others were told not to speak about it in the media or face consequences.

It was unclear why Ms. Badawi, who received the State Department’s Women of Courage Award in 2012 in a ceremony with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama, was arrested last week. Ms. Badawi has a long history of campaigning against the kingdom’s so-called guardianship laws, which prevent women from traveling abroad or obtaining certain medical procedures without the consent of a male relative.

But since the last time she was arrested, in 2016, she had kept a low profile and mostly stayed off social media.

Her brother, Raif Badawi, was sentenced in 2013 to 1,000 blows with a cane, 10 years in prison and a large fine for running the website. He received his first installment of 50 blows in front of a mosque in Jidda in 2015, but a video of the caning caused so much international outcry that it was stopped.

Ms. Badawi’s former husband, an activist lawyer, is also in prison.

Canada has a connection with the Badawis. Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children received political asylum in Canada. She became a Canadian citizen last month. She often posts harsh criticisms of the kingdom on Twitter.

Follow Ben Hubbard on Twitter: @NYTBen.

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