FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2014 image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, al-Hathloul drives towards the United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1 in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, who pushed for the right to drive, was sentenced on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, to nearly six years in prison under a vague and broadly-worded law aimed at combating terrorism, according to state-linked media. Her case and imprisonment for the past two and a half years have drawn criticism from rights groups, members of the U.S. Congress and European Union lawmakers. (Loujain al-Hathloul via AP, File)

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2014 image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, al-Hathloul drives towards the United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1 in Saudi Arabia. Al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, who pushed for the right to drive, was sentenced on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, to nearly six years in prison under a vague and broadly-worded law aimed at combating terrorism, according to state-linked media. Her case and imprisonment for the past two and a half years have drawn criticism from rights groups, members of the U.S. Congress and European Union lawmakers. (Loujain al-Hathloul via AP, File)

UBC grad sentenced to nearly 6 years after advocating for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

Loujain al-Hathloul spoke out against a ban on women driving and against male guardianship laws

It was clear that Loujain al-Hathloul intended to return home to Saudia Arabia to advocate for women’s rights after graduating in Canada, says a friend who got to know the imprisoned activist while the two women were studying at the University of British Columbia.

“She wanted to go back to Saudi Arabia,” said Atiya Jaffar, who was on the Vancouver campus with al-Hathloul between 2009 and 2013. “All of the activism that she engaged in after graduation, I believe she did it out of a love for her people and her country.”

Now one Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, 31-year-old al-Hathloul was sentenced Monday to nearly six years in prison, according to state-linked media, under a vague and broadly worded counterterrorism law.

“A conviction for terrorism is not justice for Loujain,” said Jaffar, describing al-Hathloul as a lively person and engaged student who was involved in numerous extracurricular clubs and activities. She was studying French, said Jaffar.

Al-Hathloul could be released in March 2021 based on time already served, according to rights group “Prisoners of Conscience,” which focuses on Saudi political detainees. She has been imprisoned since May 2018, and 34 months of her sentencing will be suspended.

Her family said in a statement she will be barred from leaving the kingdom for five years and required to serve three years of probation after her release.

Jaffar said she worries the suspended sentence “could be used as an excuse for a future arrest, as could the terrorism verdict in general.”

Al-Hathloul’s continued imprisonment was likely to be a point of contention in relations between the kingdom and the incoming presidency of Joe Biden, whose inauguration takes place in January — around two months before what is now expected to be al-Hathloul’s release date.

Biden has vowed to review the U.S.-Saudi relationship and take into greater consideration human rights and democratic principles. He has also vowed to reverse President Donald Trump’s policy of giving Saudi Arabia “a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies,” including the targeting of female activists.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, called the sentencing of al-Hathloul “unjust and troubling.”

“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he said in a tweet.

Al-Hathloul was found guilty and sentenced to five years and eight months by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism court on charges of agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order and co-operating with individuals and entities that have committed crimes under anti-terror laws, according to state-linked Saudi news site Sabq. The charges all come under the country’s broadly worded counterterrorism law.

Another Saudi women’s rights activist, Maya’a al-Zahrani, was issued the same sentence for a similar list of charges by the Specialized Criminal Court, which tries terrorism cases, according to local media reports Monday.

Both women have 30 days to appeal the verdicts.

A number of other women’s rights activists remain imprisoned or continue to face trials on charges related to their activism, such as pushing for the right to drive before the ban was lifted months in mid-2018.

“She was charged, tried and convicted using counter-terrorism laws,” al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, said in a statement. “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy,” she said, referring to the Saudi crown prince by his initials.

Sabq, which said its reporter was allowed inside the courtroom, reported that the judge said the defendant had confessed to committing the crimes and that her confessions were made voluntarily and without coercion. The report said the verdict was issued in the presence of the prosecutor, the defendant, a representative from the government’s Human Rights Commission and a handful of select local media representatives.

Al-Hathloul has long been defiantly outspoken about human rights in Saudi Arabia, even from behind bars. She launched hunger strikes to protest her imprisonment and joined other female activists in telling Saudi judges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during interrogations. The women say they were caned, electrocuted and waterboarded. Some say they were forcibly groped and threatened with rape.

The activist rejected an offer to rescind her allegations of torture in exchange for early release, according to her family. A court recently dismissed her allegations, citing a lack of evidence.

Among other allegations was that one of the masked interrogators was Saud al-Qahtani, a close confidante and advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the time. Al-Qahtani was later sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey.

In many ways, her case came to symbolize Prince Mohammed’s dual strategy of being credited for ushering in sweeping social reforms and simultaneously cracking down on activists who had long pushed for change.

While some activists and their families have been pressured into silence, al-Hathloul’s siblings, who reside in the U.S. and Europe, consistently spoke out against the state prosecutor’s case and launched campaigns calling for her release.

The prosecutor had called for the maximum sentence of 20 years, citing evidence such as al-Hathloul’s tweets in support of lifting a decades-long ban on women driving and speaking out against male guardianship laws that had led to multiple instances of Saudi women fleeing abusive families for refuge abroad. Al-Hathloul’s family said the prosecutor’s evidence included her contacts with rights group Amnesty International. She was also charged with speaking to European diplomats about human rights in Saudi Arabia, though that was later dropped by the prosecutor.

The longtime activist was first detained in 2014 under the previous monarch, King Abdullah, and held for more than 70 days after she attempted to livestream herself driving from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia to protest the ban on women driving.

She’s also spoken out against guardianship laws that barred women from travelling abroad without the consent of a male relative, such as a father, husband or brother. The kingdom eased guardianship laws last year, allowing women to apply for a passport and travel freely.

Her activism landed her multiple human rights awards and spreads in magazines like Vanity Fair in a photo shoot next to Meghan Markle, who would later become the Duchess of Sussex. She was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

Al-Hathloul’s family say in 2018, shortly after attending a U.N.-related meeting in Geneva about the situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, she was kidnapped by Emirati security forces in Abu Dhabi, where she’d been residing and pursuing a master’s degree. She was then forced on a plane to Saudi Arabia, where she was barred from travelling and later arrested.

Al-Hathloul was among three female activists targeted that year by state-linked media, which circulated her picture online and dubbed her a traitor.

___

By Aya Batrawy with The Associated Press in Dubai and Brenna Owen with The Canadian Press in Vancouver. AP writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed.

___

The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Saudi Arabia

Just Posted

Capitals’ Kahlil Fontana blueliner evades Alberni Valley Bulldogs’ Ethan Hersant during second-period B.C. Hockey League Island Division action at the Alberni Valley Multiplex on Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Susan Quinn/Black Press Media)
Cowichan Capitals go out with a bang

Caps finish BCHL season strong with 6-1 thumping of Clippers

The MS Society flag flies at Duncan city hall to mark MS Awareness Month. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Duncan and CVRD help mark MS Awareness Month

MS Walk scales back, but fundraisers are still vital for MS Society

“Keeping fit for Mother’s Day: Participants of Cowichan Lake Recreation’s Mother’s Day hiking event make their way down the Trans Canada Trail, Sunday, May 8. The morning event later wrapped up with snacks and prizes.” (Tyler Clarke/Lake Cowichan Gazette May 11, 2011)
Flashback: Bears, elk, salmon, candidates, and lumber graders

This week around Cowichan Lake in years gone by

Sign up to fundraise to help those affected by dementia. (Submitted)
Not too late for Cowichan residents to join Alzheimer’s Walk

Set a walking or fitness goal for May and raise funds for the Alzheimer Society of B.C.

Robert’s column
Robert Barron Column: Poachers in forest reserve should be treated harshly

‘Poachers need to be rounded up and prosecuted as soon as possible’

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

A vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is seen at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, April 22, 2021. Dr. Ben Chan remembers hearing the preliminary reports back in March of blood clots appearing in a handful of European recipients of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Science on COVID, VITT constantly changing: A look at how doctors keep up

While VITT can represent challenges as a novel disorder, blood clots themselves are not new

Poached trees that were taken recently on Vancouver Island in the Mount Prevost area near Cowichan, B.C. are shown on Sunday, May 10, 2021. Big trees, small trees, dead trees, softwoods and hardwoods have all become valuable targets of tree poachers in British Columbia as timber prices hit record levels. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne.
Tree poaching from public forests increasing in B.C. as lumber hits record prices

Prices for B.C. softwood lumber reached $1,600 for 1,000 board feet compared with about $300 a year ago

The warm weather means time for a camping trip, or at least an excursion into nature. How much do you know about camps and camping-related facts? (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: Are you ready to go camping?

How many camp and camping-related questions can you answer?

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)
Crowds at English Bay were blasted with a large beam of light from an RCMP Air-1 helicopter on Friday, May 14. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison
Police enlist RCMP helicopter to disperse thousands crowded on Vancouver beach

On Friday night, police were witness to ‘several thousand people staying well into the evening’

Sinikka Gay Elliott was reported missing on Salt Spring Island on Wednesday, May 12. (Courtesty Salt Spring RCMP)
Body of UBC professor found on Salt Spring Island, no foul play suspected

Sinikka Elliott taught sociology at the university

The first Black judge named to the BC Supreme Court, Selwyn Romilly, was handcuffed at 9:15 a.m. May 14 while walking along the seawall. (YouTube/Screen grab)
Police apologize after wrongly arresting B.C.’s first Black Supreme Court Justice

At 81 years old, the retired judge was handcuffed in public while out for a walk Friday morning

Queen Elizabeth II and Clive Holland, deputy commonwealth president of the Royal Life Saving Society, top left, virtually present Dr. Steve Beerman, top right, with the King Edward VII Cup for his drowning-prevention work. Tanner Gorille and Sarah Downs were honoured with Russell Medals for their life-saving resuscitation. (Buckingham Palace photo)
Queen presents Vancouver Island doctor with award for global drowning prevention

Dr. Steve Beerman receives Royal Life Saving Society’s King Edward VII Cup at virtual ceremony

Most Read