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Saudi woman arrives at a mosque to offer Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Hassan Ammar/AP
Girls & Women

Saudi Arabia Cancels Flights to Canada Over Tweet Supporting Women's Rights Activist

A seemingly escalating dispute between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Canada has now resulted in the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia, the cancellation of flights to Toronto, and the transfer of thousands of foreign students based in Canada.

These measures were announced just days after Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland posted a tweet that expressed concern over a recent Saudi government crackdown that led to the detention of human rights activists like high-profile women’s rights champion Samar Badawi.

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Badawi was jailed in 2010 for disobeying her father and spent seven months in jail, according to CNN.

She is now an avid activist for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Her brother, Raif Badawi, is a free-speech activist and blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2012 as a result of his website, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children became Canadian citizens this year, according to CBC.

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi,” Freeland said in her tweet.

The Canadian embassy in Riyadh also expressed concern over the arrests.

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists,” the post reads.

Saudi Arabia issued a statement on Sunday, following the tweets, condemning Canada’s comments, stating that they were considered “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Saudi Arabia advised Sunday that Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia had 24 hours to leave the country and recalled their own ambassador in Ottawa. The country also announced it was suspending all new trade and investment deals with Canada.

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“The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed disbelief by this negative unfounded comment. The persons referred to were lawfully detained by the Public Prosecution for committing crimes punishable by applicable law, which also guaranteed the detainees’ rights and provided them with due process during the investigation and trial,” the statement reads.

Minister Freeland made a statement on Monday in response to this growing feud.

“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women's rights and freedom of expression around the world,” she said.

Saudi Arabia’s airline retaliated further on Monday by announcing that it will suspend all flights to and from Toronto starting next week. The kingdom will also transfer exchange students who are currently studying in Canada, and will suspend scholarships for 16,000 Saudi students, according to the Star.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir believes Canada's opinion is based on "misleading information,” according to a tweet.

“We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Freeland, told Bloomberg.

In June, women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to drive in a huge win for equality — but many women’s rights activists who fought for that right remained detained.