National Post (National Edition)
SIX-YEAR PRISON TERM FOR SAUDI ACTIVIST
University of B.C. grad advocated for women's right to drive
A Saudi court has sentenced women's rights activist and University of British Columbia graduate Loujain al-Hathloul to almost six years in prison, where observers say she has been held and abused since her arrest.
Hathloul, 31, was arrested along with 12 other activists in 2018 for advocating for greater freedom for women in Saudi Arabia, including the right to drive. She has been in prison ever since and charged with “conspiring against the kingdom” as well as spying.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia's Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison, though with credit for time served and a suspension of the final two years and 10 months of the sentence, she could be granted a conditional release in March 2021.
Her arrest in 2018 sparked a diplomatic row between Canada and Saudi Arabia, which experts say has made it difficult for Canada to advocate for Hathloul's early release. Still, there are calls for Ottawa to pressure Riyadh to free the activist.
Bessma Momani, senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, has been in conversation with Hathloul's family. She said the activist has been abused in prison.
“The condition of her coming out (of prison) is something I'm worried about,” said Momani, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo.
Momani called the sentence hypocritical because Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman announced a series of new laws just months after her arrest that Hathloul and other human rights activists were demanding, including allowing women to travel abroad without a male family member's permission.
“It's completely hypocritical. (Bin Salman's) rationale has always been that he wants to be seen as the giver of social reforms and he doesn't want other people to be able to take credit or steal the limelight,” Momani said.
At the time of Hathloul's arrest, the Canadian Embassy in Saudi Arabia and then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, who's now Canada's deputy prime minister and finance minister, tweeted that human rights activists should be able to freely express themselves.
The tweets caused an immediate backlash as Saudi authorities expelled Canada's ambassador and suspended trade and investment with Ottawa. The kingdom also threatened to bring home all Saudi nationals studying in Canada.
Momani said Canada's longtime allies including the United States did not support Canada's position in the diplomatic fight and as a result, Canada has little influence in advocating for Hathloul's release without a multi-lateral effort from countries like the United Kingdom, France and Germany — none of which publicly supported Canada's position at the time.
“Canada is not a big player when it comes to the Saudi economic trade relationship,” she said. “The experience of 2018 taught us that our allies didn't have our back.”
Still, Hathloul's alma matter is demanding that Ottawa press the case with Saudi leadership.
“Ms. Al-Hathloul has courageously and selflessly dedicated her life to advocating for human rights and campaigning to advance women's rights in her home country of Saudi Arabia,” Santa Ono, UBC president and vice-chancellor, said in a news release Monday.
Hathloul graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Arts in 2014. She rose to prominence in 2013 when she began publicly campaigning for women's right to drive back in her home country.
“She is an exemplar of UBC's commitment to free speech, equality, empowerment and education and global citizenship and an unwavering champion of advancing a just and equitable society,” Ono said, adding that UBC has written to Ottawa and asked the federal government to press for Hathloul's release.
Canada's Foreign Affairs called the sentence is “deeply troubling.”
“We understand that early release is possible and advocate for it. True to our democratic values and principles, Canada will always stand with human rights activists and defenders, around the world,” said Angela Savard. a spokeswoman for Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne.
Hathloul's sister Lina said that Hathloul cried when she was sentenced and will appeal.
“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,” Lina said in a statement.
Amnesty International called Hathloul's treatment an example of the “cruelty” of Saudi authorities.
“Loujain al-Hathloul has already spent 900 days in detention, during which she endured torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment, was held in solitary confinement and denied access to her family,” Heba Morayef, Amnesty International regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said in a release.
United Nations human rights experts have called the charges “spurious.” The UN human rights office said the conviction was “deeply troubling” and called for her urgent release.
Rights groups and her family say Hathloul was subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi authorities have denied the charges.
In 2019, Hathloul refused to rescind her allegations of torture in exchange for early release, her family has said. A court last week dismissed the allegations.
Saudi newspapers Sabq and alShark al-Awsat reported the judge said Hathloul confessed to the crimes without coercion.
OF 2018 TAUGHT US THAT OUR ALLIES DIDN'T HAVE OUR