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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A historic home near Granny’s Fruit Stand in Summerland was the home of two of the community’s mayors. J.R. Campbell and Don Cameron both lived at the home on Highway 97 in Summerland, but not at the same time. (Photo courtesy of the Summerland Museum)
Historic house was home to two Summerland mayors

Building along Highway 97 was constructed in 1906

Interior Health reported 91 new COVID-19 cases in the region Jan. 20, 2021 and three additional deaths. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
95 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health, two deaths

Another member of Vernon’s Noric House has passed

Fiction writing contest
A call to writers in the Okanagan

UBCO holds annual fiction writing contest

Vaccine rollout is focused on health care workers first, especially those dealing with long-term care facilities. (Nathan Denette - Canadian Press)
General public shouldn’t expect vaccines until fall: Interior Health

Interior Health focused on vaccinating long-term and first-line care workers

A mother hold hands with her daughter while sharing about her struggles with addiction during Overdose Awareness Day. (Jesse Major/Black Press file)
Overdose and suicide support group starts in Penticton

Penticton was one of the province’s communities hardest hit by the overdose crisis in 2020

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

The District of Saanich’s communications team decided to take part in a viral trend on Thursday and photoshopped U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders into a staff meeting photo. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Bernie Sanders makes guest appearance municipal staff meeting in B.C.

Vancouver Island firefighters jump on viral trend of photoshopped U.S. senator

School District 57 headquarters in Prince George. (Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter)
Prince George school district settles with sexual abuse victim

Terms were part of an out-of-court settlement reached with Michael Bruneau, nearly four years after he filed a lawsuit

The Oliver Fire Department’s “new” truck was built with the help of various local companies. It was completed Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (Oliver Fire Dept. / Facebook)
It takes a town to build a truck: The Oliver Fire Department gets creative

Ingenuity and local connections played an important role in the upgrading fire truck

Surrey provincial court. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
New COVID-19 protocols set for provincial courthouses

The new rules were issued on Jan. 21, and took effect immediately

Police in Vancouver looking for male suspect who allegedly spat and attacked a store manager for not wearing a mask, at 7-Eleven near Alma Street and West 10th Avenue just before noon on Dec. 17, 2020. (Vancouver police handout)
VIDEO: Man spits on 7-Eleven manager over mask rule, sparking Vancouver police probe

‘Unfortunately, the store manager sustained a cut to his head during the assault’

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

A ‘Notice of trespass and personal liability’ has been ‘served’ by a mysterious group called the Sovereign Republic of British Columbia to several Okanagan mayors.
Mysterious group serves notice to Okanagan-Shuswap mayors, demanding end to ‘unlawful’ COVID rules

26-page letter sent by ‘Sovereign Republic of British Columbia’

Vernon’s Ellison Provincial Park has everything the outdoor enthusiast could wish for. (Ribbons of Green photo)
Upgrades trail in for Okanagan campgrounds

Bear Creek and Ellison improvements underway

Most Read