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

White Rock Rotary Club president Mauricio Browne de Paula (front right) with other club and community volunteers at the launch of the free hot lunch program at the city parking lot at Russell Avenue and Johnston Road on May 21. (File photo)
Daily demand for White Rock Rotary, city lunch program surpasses 40

Recipients ‘are very good people… going through some tough times’

Surrey Fire Service responded to a fire in the industrial area of 192nd street and 54th Avenue early Saturday morning (Jan. 23, 2021). (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey crews respond to fire in industrial area

Fire happened early Saturday morning

Students at Creekside Elementary in Surrey wrote letters to seniors over the holidays, and are planning to write more for Valentine’s Day and Family Day. (Photo: surreyschools.ca)
Surrey elementary students connect with seniors through letter writing

Creekside students planning to send more cards for Valentine’s Day

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Police called to Surrey home for report of weapon, man taken into custody

Surrey RCMP say people evacuated from house, one found in a bedroom ‘hiding from police’

Judy and Ken Reid share a smile at Peace Arch Hospital in 2018. Judy raised concerns last month about how the COVID-19 vaccine would be rolled out. Now, she says no one is telling residents or families when they will start to see restrictions ease. (Contributed photo)
Timeline for reduced restrictions in long-term care a concern for spouse of South Surrey senior

‘We’re not yet at that point,’ says provincial health officer

Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 is International Lego Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 24 to 30

Lego Day, Talk Like a Grizzled Prospector Day and Puzzle Day are all coming up this week

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

Giants defenceman Bowen Byram has recorded his first NHL career point (Rob Wilton/special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Vancouver Giants Bowen Byram records first NHL career point with Colorado Avalanche

Player with Langley-based WHL franchise assisted on goal against the Ducks

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

Kimberly Proctor, 18, was murdered in 2010. Her family has spent many of the years since pushing for a law in her honour, that they say would help to prevent similar tragedies. (Courtesy of Jo-Anne Landolt)
Proposed law honouring murdered B.C. teen at a standstill, lacks government support

Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has concerns with involuntary detainment portion of act

Most Read