British Columbia

UBC president calls on Ottawa to step in after activist graduate arrested in Saudi Arabia

Al-Hathloul, described as one of the most outspoken women's rights activists, was detained May 15. UBC initially declined comment, but the institution's president has since written an open letter condemning her arrest.

Loujain Al-Hathloul, an outspoken women's rights activists, was arrested May 15

Loujain Al-Hathloul, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, was among 10 activists recently arrested in Saudi Arabia. She attended UBC between 2009 and 2014, and the university president is now calling on the Canadian federal government to ensure her safe release. (Facebook)

The president of the University of British Columbia is calling on Ottawa to intervene more than two weeks after one of its graduates — a prominent women's rights activist — was detained in Saudi Arabia.

Loujain Al-Hathloul, 28, was arrested in the kingdom on May 15. She and nine other advocates were reportedly arrested for trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia with foreign funding, but have not been charged. 

Al-Hathloul attended UBC from 2009 to 2014, graduating with a degree in French.

She has been described as one of the most outspoken women's rights activists in the kingdom. Her former professor, Sima Godfrey, said she was a "very tough person" who spoke openly about her plans to return to Saudi Arabia and fight for women's rights after graduation.

Her arrest came less than a month before the kingdom is set to the lift the world's only ban on women driving.

Alhathloul attended the University of British Columbia between 2009 and 2013, graduating with a degree in French. (Loujain Al-Hathloul/Facebook)

On Wednesday, Santa J. Ono published a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland asking that Canada work with Saudi Arabia to fight for Al-Hathloul's safe release.

"She exemplifies the values of what we stand for as an institution," said Ono in an interview between spring convocation ceremonies.

"We're proud of her," the president continued. "Incredibly proud."

The president's letter comes a day after more than 80 faculty members signed an open letter saying they were "deeply troubled" by the university's initial lack of response to Al-Hathloul's arrest.

"We ... expect and demand that UBC show more concern for the welfare of all members of the UBC community — and certainly those whose human rights are actively being violated," says the letter addressing UBC leaders.

"We do not believe and would be entirely chagrined to discover that Ms Al-Hathloul's human rights work is 'unrelated to [her] time' as a UBC student," it continued.

"In this matter UBC has been anything but inspiring, anything but just."

Loujain Al-Hathloul has been in custody since May 15. (Facebook)

Over the weekend, a UBC spokesperson declined to comment on Al-Hathloul's detainment, saying said the university has over 300,000 alumni and it would be "inappropriate" to comment on actions unrelated to their time there.

Ono tweeted his letter to Freeland on Wednesday morning.

"As UBC's president, I am deeply moved by alumni who so clearly and demonstrably reflect a commitment to justice and human rights within an environment where those actions come with significant threats to personal safety and security," Ono wrote.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs previously said Canadian officials are "extremely disappointed" by Saudi Arabia's actions.

Three of the detainees arrested with Al-Hathloul, largely prominent Saudi women's rights activists and lawyers, have already been released.​

Al-Hathloul reportedly hasn't been allowed to contact family or lawyers since she was arrested.

She was previously imprisoned after advocating for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia in 2014, spending 73 days behind bars after filming herself behind the wheel.

In 2015, an Arabian business magazine named her the third most powerful Arab woman in the world.