Concern grows for UBC grad after report Saudi Arabia tortured activists

Amnesty International says it obtained testimony from three different people who said the women detained in Dhahban Prison have been repeatedly tortured by electric shock and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly.

Amnesty International alleges women have been subjected to flogging, electric shock

University of British Columbia grad Loujain Al-Hathloul has been described as one of the most outspoken women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She has been detained there since being arrested in May. (Loujain al-Hathloul/Facebook)

Friends of University of British Columbia graduate Loujain Al-Hathloul say they're increasingly worried for their former classmate after an Amnesty International report alleged Saudi Arabia tortured activists who have been detained there since May.

Al-Hathloul, 28, is known as one of the most outspoken women's rights activists in the kingdom, and was arrested along with nine other activists on May 15.

Since then she has been detained in Saudi Arabia's Dhahban Prison, and has not been allowed to contact her family or seek legal counsel.

Amnesty International says it obtained testimony from three different people who said the women detained in Dhahban Prison have been repeatedly tortured by electric shock and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly.

In one reported instance, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling. One of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment by interrogators wearing face masks.

Torture is in violation of Saudi Arabia's obligations under international law, including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Al-Hathloul was previously detained for 70 days in 2014 after she attempted to livestream herself driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. (Facebook)

"Saudi authorities are directly responsible for the well-being of these women and men in detention," Lynn Maalouf, of Amnesty International, said in a statement.

"Not only have they deprived them of their liberty for months now simply for peacefully expressing their views, they are also subjecting them to horrendous physical suffering."

The report comes less than a week after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman ​ordered the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a statement from Global Affairs, a spokesperson said Canada is "very concerned" by the report.

"We believe that the imprisonment of these activists runs counter to the Saudi government's stated goal of reform. Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women's rights, at home and abroad," the statement read in part. 

'What we feared'

Narissa Diwan, who became friends with Al-Hathloul as a student at UBC and has since joined a Vancouver-based "Friends of Loujain" group to raise awareness about the case, said reading the report was "incredibly upsetting."

The group doesn't know if Al-Hathloul is among the women cited in the Amnesty report.

"It was what we feared would happen but we were hoping wouldn't, especially after people have been putting pressure on the Saudi government," Diwan said.

She's a strong person so we know she's probably still fighting, but I don't think any of the activists are really OK right now."- Narissa Diwan

She said Al-Hathloul is tough, having previously been detained for 70 days after she attempted to livestream herself driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia, but that the situation is becoming increasingly desperate.

"She is clearly really determined in doing what's right, otherwise she wouldn't be where she is right now. She's a strong person so we know she's probably still fighting, but I don't think any of the activists are really OK right now."

Among the other women detained in Dhahban prison is Samar Badawi, sister of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Raif's wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children became Canadian citizens earlier this year.

The Saudi consulate in Canada did not immediately respond to a CBC News request for comment.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC Vancouver. She previously reported in Lebanon and Chile.