Canadian officials have accused Saudi Arabia of human rights violations and demanded the release of activists imprisoned there. Saudi Arabia reacted by vowing to relocate 7,000 Saudi scholarship recipients studying in Canada.
Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of education for scholarship Jasser bin Sulaiman Al Harbash told state-run television, “We will be able to accommodate this number of students in excellent countries such as the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.”
Canadian officials called for Saudi Arabia to release civil rights activists via Twitter, including women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi. In a statement made on August 5th, Saudi Arabia officials declared “[t]he Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront … that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty.”
At the University of Regina (UR), 153 Saudi Arabian students were told by their own country that they had one month to leave. This included both those with scholarships as well as those paying for schooling on their own.
Livia Castellanos, the Associate Vice-President and Chief International Officer at UR International, stated in an interview with CBC, “I have been doing this job for almost 20 years, I have worked in several schools in Canada, this is the first time I’ve seen something of this nature.”
Punishing students for civil rights intervention that Saudi Arabian officials called “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states” is surprising for many, especially faculty in Canada.
Canadian officials, including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, are “deeply concerned” about the relocation of students in Canada. However, they are determined to stand up against civil rights violations.
Activist Samar Badawi, who was mentioned in the tweet by Canadian officials, was arrested on August 1st. The Human Rights Watch declared Badawi’s arrest part of an “unprecedented government crackdown on the women’s rights movement that began on May 15, 2018, and has resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen activists.”
Badawi, who is best known for challenging the country’s restrictive male guardianship laws, was among 15 prominent women’s rights activists who have been arrested since May. Nine of those women are facing charges considered terrorist-related.
Saudi Arabia’s dealing with both civil rights activists and its relocation of students has sparked a broader conversation regarding its commitment to its own citizens. In May, Saudi Arabia arrested activists rallied for women’s ability to drive. Though the ban was lifted, the government is clearly attempting to shut down voices calling for change.
“They put pressure on the government and the government is still angry, even if it has accepted that women will be allowed to drive,” an activist told the Wall Street Journal. “Women will drive soon, and they don’t want anyone who can comment.”
Though Saudi Arabia is retaliating against citizens in its own country as well as abroad, Amnesty International has encouraged other countries to stand up against civil rights violations externally, hoping that the push will turn the country away from its patriarchal past.
“The world cannot continue to look the other way,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East director of campaigns. “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.”
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