The family of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s-rights activists and a University of B.C. graduate, wants Canada and its allies to keep speaking out against the kingdom’s human-rights violations after their sister was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on terrorism-related charges.
Walid al-Hathloul, who lives in Toronto and works for a local real estate developer, told The Globe and Mail that Canada, the United States and European countries need to reject the Saudi persecution of activists such as his 31-year-old sister, whom state-linked media reported was sentenced earlier that day under a vague and broadly worded counterterrorism law.
In 2018, Global Affairs Canada triggered a furious backlash from Riyadh when it supported Ms. al-Hathloul and other protesters by posting on Twitter in English and at least once in Arabic that Canada was “gravely concerned about … arrests of civil-society and women’s-rights activists.”
“What happened in 2018 [to Canada] should be avoided and the only way to do that is to work closely with allies in Europe and the United States,” said Mr. al-Hathloul, who has settled in Canada after graduating last year from York University’s Schulich School of Business because he is blocked from leaving Saudi Arabia if he returns.
“That will make it more powerful and will avoid any diplomatic crisis.”
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. Saudi Arabia’s international reputation was further damaged that year when its agents murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Alia al-Hathloul, the eldest of the activist’s five siblings, told The Globe Monday in a phone interview from her home in Belgium that countries such as Canada can also use trade to press Saudi Arabia, which depends on its participation in the global economy.
“All international pressure can make things improve in Saudi Arabia, so countries do not need to undermine or underestimate their efforts,” she said. “Their efforts, their pressure has a positive impact on Saudi Arabia – it’s connected to the rest of the world.”
In a short e-mailed statement, Angela Savard, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, called Monday’s sentencing “deeply troubling.”
“We understand that early release is possible and advocate for it,” the statement said. “True to our democratic values and principles, Canada will always stand with human-rights activists and defenders around the world.”
Canadian diplomats were shut out of observing his sister’s recent trial, according to Mr. al-Hathloul. He said his sister will appeal Monday’s ruling, but his family has little hope in the Saudi justice system. Ms. al-Hathloul could be released in March because a sizable portion of her sentence was suspended, according to rights group Prisoners of Conscience, which focuses on Saudi political detainees.
Ms. al-Hathloul has long been defiantly outspoken about human rights in Saudi Arabia, even from behind bars. She launched hunger strikes to protest against 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.
In many ways, her case came to symbolize Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dual strategy of being credited for ushering in sweeping social reforms and simultaneously cracking down on activists who had long pushed for change.
Ms. al-Hathloul 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 confidant and adviser to Mr. bin Salman at the time. Mr. al-Qahtani was later sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged role in the assassination of Mr. Khashoggi.
Ms. 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.
Mr. 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.
Ms. al-Hathloul’s activism landed her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and extensive media coverage, such as a Vanity Fair photo shoot in Ottawa next to future Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle.
It was clear that she intended to return home to Saudi Arabia to advocate for women’s rights after graduating in Canada, says a friend who got to know her while studying at the University of British Columbia.
“She wanted to go back to Saudi Arabia,” said Atiya Jaffar, who attended the Vancouver campus from 2009 to 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.”
With reports from Janice Dickson in Ottawa and The Associated Press
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.