A national coalition of student unions is calling on Canada to secure the immediate release of Loujain al-Hathloul, an imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activist who began her advocacy at the University of British Columbia and still has an older brother living in Toronto.
Three groups at her alma mater started the “Students For Loujain” campaign this month. Two dozen organizations representing more than 300,000 Canadian postsecondary students are now calling on Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Ottawa to “take substantial action” to free the 31-year-old activist from Saudi prison, where she was sentenced Monday for terrorism-related charges.
“In light of the news that she has been sentenced for six years, we’re very disappointed, we’re disheartened and this is some troubling news because – in our eyes – Ms. Al-Hathloul is the furthest thing from a terrorist,” Kalith Nanayakkara, a spokesperson with the Alma Mater Society of UBC, said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Ms. al-Hathloul was among a number of activists rounded up in 2018, the year Saudi Arabia lifted a long-standing ban on women driving but accompanied that move with a crackdown on activists who had campaigned against the ban. Her family says she will appeal the new ruling, which was made under a vague and broadly worded counterterrorism law, and Ms. al-Hathloul could be released as early as March because a sizable portion of her sentence was suspended.
Alireza Kamyabi, a spokesperson for UBC’s Graduate Student Society, one of two other groups organizing the campaign, said Ms. al-Hathloul had an outsized impact while studying French literature at the university, where she led the Arab Student Association from 2012 to 2013.
“This is one of the advantages or perks of a global education: When we have students coming from all across the world it really makes for a good substantive dialogue on various issues,” Mr. Kamyabi said.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada did not respond immediately Tuesday to a request for comment on the campaign’s core demand. On Monday, a spokesperson told The Globe and Mail that Ottawa found the activist’s sentencing deeply troubling and that Canada was advocating for her early release of Ms. al-Hathloul.
In September, 2016, Ms. al-Hathloul returned to Canada to attend a leadership conference put on by British-based charity One Young World, where the non-profit’s managing director Ella Robertson arranged a Vanity Fair photo shoot with other activists and the future Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. That shoot, on Parliament Hill, gained the Saudi activist attention from international tabloids and, likely, the further indignation of her country’s ruling regime, Ms. Robertson told The Globe.
Ms. al-Hathloul came to Canada’s West Coast fresh out of high school in 2007 to improve her English before university and joined her brother, who was already living in Vancouver pursuing a kinesiology degree at Simon Fraser University, her other brother Walid al-Hathloul told The Globe on Tuesday in a phone interview from his home in Toronto.
Near the end of her studies at UBC, his sister had developed a sizable following on the social-media platform Kik advocating for women’s rights in Saudia Arabia, Mr. al-Hathloul said. When he questioned her risky decision to return to the kingdom to begin agitating in person, she told him she was willing to pay the price, he said.
“She basically said that it’s meaningless living a life where you enjoy all your human rights and your native country has a situation where a lot of women don’t really enjoy their basic rights,” said Mr. al-Hathloul, who added he supports the Canadian student campaign and any effort to press governments to free his younger sister.
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