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posting videos of herself driving a car well before Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, repealed a driving ban last spring.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.