Call for pres­sure on Riyadh af­ter de­ten­tion of women

Among jailed rights ac­tivists is a for­mer UBC stu­dent who drove a car be­fore ban was lifted


OT­TAWA— Hu­man Rights Watch says the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must pres­sure Saudi Ara­bia to al­low in­de­pen­dent in­ter­na­tional mon­i­tors to have ac­cess to a group of jailed women’s rights ac­tivists who have been sub­jected to tor­ture, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and other forms of mis­treat­ment.

The rights ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion says it re­ceived new in­for­ma­tion from sources in Saudi Ara­bia that the de­tainees, many ar­bi­trar­ily jailed with­out charge since May, have been told by an of­fi­cial of the Saudi gov­ern­men­tal Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion they can­not pro­tect them.

Among the group of jailed ac­tivists are Lou­jain al Hathloul, a for­mer Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia stu­dent and prom­i­nent out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for women’s rights in Saudi Ara­bia, and Sa­mar Badawi, sis­ter of jailed blogger Raif Badawi. Raif Badawi’s wife, En­saf Haidar, and their three chil­dren were granted asy­lum in Canada and are Cana­dian cit­i­zens.

Al Hathloul, who com­pleted a French de­gree at UBC in 2013, is a Saudi cit­i­zen who re­turned af­ter grad­u­a­tion and mar­ried. She an­gered the Saudi regime for op­pos­ing re­stric­tions on the move­ment of women with­out a male guardian and for post­ing videos of her­self driv­ing a car well be­fore Saudi Ara­bia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, repealed a driv­ing ban last spring.

Al Hathloul had been re­peat­edly ar­rested, de­tained and re­leased, but has been in jail since be­ing re­ar­rested in the May sweep, and charged with desta­bi­liz­ing the king­dom.

Canada and other west­ern coun­tries have been lob­by­ing for their re­lease. When Ot­tawa tweeted its con­cern in Au­gust specif­i­cally about Sa­mar Badawi and the oth­ers, Riyadh re­acted in fury, freez­ing new trade and in­vest­ment.

For­eign Af­fairs Minister Chrys­tia Free­land said Fri­day the Saudi am­bassa- dor who was called back from Canada in protest has still not re­turned, but Canada con­tin­ues to ad­vo­cate for hu­man rights “even in sit­u­a­tions where it’s dif­fi­cult.”

“We have con­sis­tently raised our hu­man rights con­cerns with Saudi Ara­bia in par­tic­u­lar our con­cerns about the treat­ment of fem­i­nist ac­tivists. We have raised these is­sues both in pri­vate and in pub­lic.”

How­ever, within the past three weeks, Hu­man Rights Watch, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, the Wash­ing­ton Post and the Wall Street Jour­nal, among oth­ers, have pub­lished dra­matic, sep­a­rately ob­tained in­for­ma­tion from con­fi­den­tial sources in Saudi Ara­bia that raises new alarms about the de­tainees’ treat­ment.

The U.K.’s Daily Tele­graph re­ported Fri­day that a key aide to bin Sal­man, who was fired for his role in the killing of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi, per­son­ally over­saw the tor­ture of at least one de­tained fe­male ac­tivist this year.

Hu­man Rights Watch cited new in­for­ma­tion this week that sug­gests al­though most of the hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions took place be­tween May and Au­gust, it ap­pears tor­ture of Saudi women ac­tivists may be on­go­ing. The or­ga­ni­za­tion de­clined to iden­tify its sources or the in­di­vid­u­als sub­jected to the worst treat­ment, fear­ing more reprisals.

“Un­less in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tors are able to con­firm the women ac­tivists’ well-be­ing, there is ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that the Saudi au­thor­i­ties have treated them with un­speak­able cru­elty,” said Michael Page, deputy Mid­dle East di­rec­tor at Hu­man Rights Watch.

Cana­dian friends of al Hathloul fear that bin Sal­man is em­bold­ened, af­ter he ap­pears to have es­caped blame de­spite an in­ter­na­tional out­cry over the ex­trater­ri­to­rial mur­der of Kashoggi, and that the jailed ac­tivists re­main at risk.

Lou­jain al Hathloul has been de­tained in Saudi Ara­bia for her work as a women’s rights ac­tivist.

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