Canada has a “duty to investigate” allegations that a Saudi activist living in Montreal may have been pressured into returning to his homeland, opposition critics and human rights observers say.
As the Star reported last week, Ahmed Alharby, 24, who sought asylum in Canada in 2019 and has publicly criticized the Saudi regime on social media, suddenly returned to Saudi Arabia earlier this month whereupon a new Twitter account was created under his name featuring a prominent image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Perplexed friends back in Montreal told the Star they were skeptical about who was behind the account, recalling phone calls they had a few weeks ago with Alharby, who had been granted asylum in Canada. They said he described having gone to the Saudi embassy in Ottawa and undergoing some kind of interrogation, and that he was looking for their help. One of the friends subsequently notified the RCMP about his concerns.
So far, federal officials have been reluctant to say much about what, if anything, they are doing to get to the bottom of the friends’ claims.
“We are aware of these allegations,” Tim Warmington, a Public Safety Canada spokesperson, said in an email Tuesday, the first response the Star has received from the department since reaching out last Thursday.
“While we cannot comment on individual cases, Canadians and all individuals living or visiting in Canada, regardless of their nationality, should feel safe and free from criminal activity. Anyone who believes a crime is or has been committed against them or is concerned for the well-being of an individual should report it to their local police immediately.”
NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said while little is known about Alharby’s mysterious return to Saudi Arabia, Canada’s national security agencies have a responsibility to investigate.
“If there are complaints being brought forward about potential significant intimidation, then (Canada) has the responsibility to investigate it and investigate it thoroughly,” Harris told the Star. “Any resident of Canada is entitled to the protection of the investigatory powers of police officials, and, in this case, because of the national security implications, the national security service.”
Harris added: “The details that you garnered together seem to be certainly important enough to give rise to concerns about this individual’s safety, and there’s a duty to investigate.”
Michael Chong, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, echoed Harris’s comments, saying in a statement: “The government’s response to Canadians facing intimidation and harassment by foreign agents is wholly inadequate. Only the federal government has the security and intelligence resources to investigate and protect Canadians.”
A spokesperson for CSIS deferred to Public Safety Canada’s comment. The RCMP repeated it cannot comment on individual cases.
It is “very off” for someone who was granted asylum to return home, said Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. It either means they didn’t have a well-founded fear of persecution or were promised something in return for coming home.
“While this person’s true story remains a mystery, it does fit an emerging and larger pattern of the Saudi government’s authoritarianism in going after Saudi nationals and other critics of the Crown Prince who are living in the West,” he said. “A spotlight must be shone on this case, as we have increasingly seen more and more foreign governments target new Canadians and asylum seekers on Canadian soil.”
Adam Coogle, deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, agreed it is unusual for a Saudi asylum seeker to return to Saudi Arabia “given the current repression level in the country” — but said it’s not unheard of either.
“In the past few years, I’ve personally seen two cases where a Saudi asylum seeker did return after obtaining guarantees from Saudi officials that they would not face arrest or retaliation.”
He said he has not been in touch with the two returnees.
“We decided not to contact them because the risks are too high (and agreed beforehand with them that we would not). But both are tweeting and seem to be OK as far as we can tell.”
On Feb. 17, the new Twitter account under Alharby’s name posted a picture of a smiling Alharby and a message saying he was “grateful” to be back in his homeland and that there was no feeling like that of being around friends and family.
This week, new posts appeared on the account containing various pro-Saudi messages, including a video clip of Alharby in a car with the word “POWER” and images of the Saudi flag superimposed on it, as well as a couple of kingdom-affiliated announcements related to student life in Saudi Arabia.
The new tweets are a stark contrast in content and tone to posts on Alharby’s original Twitter account, which frequently commented on the plight of those imprisoned in the kingdom and were highly critical of the crown prince.
Asked if it was possible that Alharby just missed home or had a change of heart, his friends in Montreal said they were doubtful.
“Why did he call me? He called others to say that, ‘I’m worried. Help me,’ ” Omar Abdulaziz, a high-profile Saudi dissident and video blogger, said this week. “If he had said, ‘Guys, no, no, I’m going there voluntarily, I’ll go back home, I’m fed up, I give up, and that’s it. Finito. Yes, we would understand, but the last few days weren’t usual.”
In the days leading up to Alharby’s departure from Canada, friends say they received calls from him saying he felt “lost” and had gone to the Saudi embassy. He described being put in a room and questioned about his friends and activities — a scene that reminded him of the situation faced by Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
During that visit, Alharby was given travel documents for returning to Saudi Arabia via Montreal and someone from the embassy accompanied him to the airport, the friends said.
But at the airport, Alharby had second thoughts and fled, they said.
Saudi officials at the embassy in Ottawa have not returned multiple messages seeking comment.
Before coming to Canada, Alharby was enrolled as a student at Oklahoma State University in the fall 2018 and spring 2019, the school confirmed.
The school’s website states he was on the president’s honour roll and studying computer engineering.
While pursuing his studies, Alharby opened a Twitter account in which he railed against the Saudi regime, posting articles about Khashoggi and Loujain Alhathloul, the prominent Saudi women’s rights activist and UBC graduate, who was released from prison this month.
One of the first tweets on that account used the hashtag #WhatWouldYouDoIfYouBecameAKing. Alharby responds by saying he would establish a voting committee to convey the true opinion of citizens, and not get these issues covered up. After that he would step down from being a king and would convert the country from a dictatorship into a democratic country governed by its own citizens.
It is not clear why Alharby went to Canada before graduating. Abdulaziz, the friend in Montreal, said it’s possible he didn’t feel safe in the United States, especially under the Donald Trump administration.
A PBS News Hour investigation published in 2019, citing intelligence experts and interviews with eight current and former Saudi students in the U.S., said the Saudi government closely monitors the activities of students abroad and penalizes those who criticize the kingdom using passport freezes, death threats, intimidation, retraction of scholarships, and attempts to lure them back to the country.
According to his friends, Alharby crossed the border into Canada in 2019 in between official ports of entry — one of the roughly 16,500 asylum seekers who the government says entered the country that year as an “irregular border crosser.”
It was around this time that Alharby posted a video on Twitter in which he condemned the “injustice and suppression” faced by Saudi activists back home, as well as efforts by the Saudi government to chase after dissidents abroad, such as Khashoggi.
Shortly after arriving in Montreal, he befriended Abdulaziz and other Saudi dissidents.
“He met some of our friends when he first came to Canada. Then he contacted us,” Abdulaziz recalled. “Most of the people who would come to Canada would contact me or contact other dissidents to be in touch with, especially if they are looking to work in any political activities.
“So when he called, we welcomed him, we invited him to the restaurant and had coffee together. We said we’re going to work together…. I was happy he was there. He was getting paid by us.”