The family and friends of a Canadian political refugee and activist have been arrested in Saudi Arabia as the rift between the two countries deepens.
Omar Abdulaziz, 27, told Business Insider that the government has targeted two of his brothers and several of his friends back home in Saudi Arabia in response to his political activism. Abdulaziz is active on Twitter and hosts a popular satirical news program on YouTube, where he has spoken out against the Saudi government and its human rights record.
He says Saudi authorities first approached his friends and family earlier this week to try and get Abdulaziz to stop criticizing the Saudi government from his residence in Montreal, but he refused.
“They threatened me a few days ago,” Abdulaziz said, “and they used my brother to blackmail me. He said to me ‘Omar you have to stop because we’re going to be arrested or jailed.’ Some of our friends reached out to me, too. But I said I’m not going to stop, I’m going to keep talking. ”
On Tuesday, Abdulaziz said some of his relatives noticed that his brothers were absent during the Eid-al Adha festivities, which sees four days of celebration centered around sacrificing animals. Later, he says a friend who works for the Saudi government confirmed that two of his brothers and a group of friends had been arrested by Saudi authorities earlier in the day.
“I cannot contact my family,” Abdulaziz said. “I tried and they didn’t respond. I know that they are under huge pressure from the Saudi government.”
Abdulaziz first moved to Canada as a student and attended Bishop’s University in Quebec. After becoming more involved in political commentary online, he says he decided to apply for political asylum in 2014 because he felt that his outspoken criticism of the government posed risks back home.
“I was scared to go back to my country,” he said. “I knew that if I went back I would be imprisoned.”
His asylum application was approved, and he later became a Canadian permanent resident in 2017.
He says the government has never reached out to him in the past about his political activism, and suspects that the timing of the arrests is related to the ongoing diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland provoked Saudi Arabia earlier this month with a single tweet calling out the Kingdom’s human rights record after it cracked down on over a dozen prominent rights activists.
Abdulaziz says he worries about the fate of his family and friends, as well as the dozens of other activists who have been taken into custody, including political protester Israa al-Ghomgham who could be the first female activist to be sentenced to death in the country.
On Thursday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he continues to “engage diplomatically” with Saudi Arabia but remains “concerned” over the impending execution of al-Ghomgham.
“Canada will continue to stand up strongly for human rights, minority rights, and our shared universal values, even as we look to have constructive relations, positive relations with countries around the world,” Trudeau said.
Business Insider has reached out to the Canadian foreign ministry for comment.