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Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is seen in this undated handout picture.


Three days after it hosted world leaders at a virtual Group of 20 summit, Saudi Arabia has transferred the trial of Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist and University of British Columbia graduate, to a terrorist court.

Ms. al-Hathloul’s case was among those that the Global Affairs department championed in 2018, posting statements on Twitter in English and at least once in Arabic about how it was “gravely concerned about ... arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists.” Those comments ended up triggering a furious backlash from Riyadh that has damaged diplomatic relations with Ottawa.

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.

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Wednesday’s decision by Riyadh, which was communicated by her family to Reuters and other media outlets, drew condemnation from human-rights groups as well as advocates in Canada for Ms. al-Hathloul’s case.

“As a defender of women’s rights, Ms. al-Hathloul is the furthest thing from a terrorist and it is imperative that the international community continue to monitor her situation to ensure her fair treatment, personal safety, and hopefully expedient release,” Cole Evans, president of the University of British Columbia’s Alma Mater Society, said in a statement.

“The allegations of her arrest and detainment remain unfounded and only her immediate release should be an acceptable outcome.”'

The latest twist in the case of Ms. al-Hathloul renewed criticism of a $15-billion contract between the Canadian government and Saudi Arabia to supply armoured combat vehicles to the desert kingdom, many of which are equipped with machine guns or anti-tank cannons. Saudi Arabia is the second-biggest export destination for Canadian military goods; the United States is first.

“The Trudeau government currently has a $15-billion deal selling armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia despite their ongoing record of human-rights abuses,” NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris noted.

“Canada has a role to play in defending human rights here and around the world and must do more in human-rights cases such as this.”

Ottawa is “concerned about the case of Loujain al-Hathloul and other women activists in their struggle for gender equality,” said Global Affairs spokeswoman Patricia Skinner, who noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke up for human rights during the Saudi-chaired G20 meeting.

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The Prime Minister “stressed the need to respect and defend the rule of law and human rights, including women’s rights, in order to prevent persecution and mistreatment around the world,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office after the virtual summit.

Human-rights groups and Ms. al-Hathloul’s family had urged the Saudi government to release her and other women’s rights activists in the lead up to the G20 summit. Saudi Arabia has suffered major blows to its reputation because of the war it is waging in neighbouring Yemen and the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents.

Jackie Hansen, gender-rights campaigner at Amnesty International Canada, which has urged cancellation of the Saudi arms deal, said the Canadian government needs to be more consistent in its foreign policy if it wants to champion women’s rights. Ottawa has promised to deliver a paper that articulates its goal of a feminist foreign policy.

“As Canada develops its white paper on feminist foreign policy, we would like to see policy coherence across different areas – including trade and security – to ensure the government of Canada takes a consistent approach to all its international engagements,” Ms. Hansen said.

Officials have said the arrests of women activists were made on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad. Those allegations against Ms. al-Hathloul include communicating with foreign journalists, attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations and attending digital privacy training, her family has said.

Rights groups say at least three of the women, including Ms. al-Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi officials have denied torture allegations.

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Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group that has called for the cancellation of the Saudi-Canada arms deal, said it’s not clear how a feminist foreign policy includes military sales to the desert kingdom.

“This is a government that claims to champion media freedom and sells weapons to the killers of Jamal Khashoggi. It claims to champion women’s rights and continues arming an irredeemable repressor of women. These flagrant contradictions would be laughable if they weren’t so harmful to the very objectives Canada purports to champion.”

With a report from Reuters

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