British Columbia

Saudi activist marks 2 years in prison as trial indefinitely delayed due to COVID-19

Human rights activist Loujain Alhathloul marked two years in a Saudi prison without a trial on May 15th.

Loujain Alhathloul has been denied family visits for 2 months because of COVID-19

Alhathloul, who turned 30 in Ha'er Prison in August, was a well-known activist known for her vivacity and spirit even prior to her high-profile arrest and detention. (Loujain Alhathloul/Facebook)

Prominent human rights activist Loujain Alhathloul has spent two years in a Saudi prison, her trial now indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus.

Alhathloul, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, has been detained since May 2018, when she was arrested in Saudi Arabia along with nine other women's rights activists.

The women were first accused of trying to destabilize the country using foreign funding. Since then, those charges have been changed to communicating with foreign journalists and attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations.

Alhathloul's brother, Walid Alhathloul, said the family has been unable to visit her since March because of the country's coronavirus lockdown.

Those visits have been replaced by a weekly phone call on Sundays, which Walid Alhathloul says are heavily monitored and can be ended arbitrarily.

"She claims to be fine. We can only judge from the tone of her voice and it doesn't sound like she's really doing well," he said, speaking from his own self-isolation in Toronto.

"Of course, because it's monitored she can't say any negative thing of what is happening inside the prison."

Walid Alhathloul said he fears COVID-19 has now indefinitely put off a process that had already been repeatedly postponed without explanation.

The number of coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia passed 50,000 on Saturday.

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

"We don't know where the case is going ... when it comes to understanding the outcome of the trial, it's very hard to predict that because we are dealing with people who are unpredictable," he said, adding the family's hope is that they can keep the case in the public eye.

In late April, the kingdom announced two changes to the law, banning flogging as a punishment and doing away with the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. These challenges follow a number of human rights reforms, including allowing women the right to drive, and allowing women to travel abroad and obtain a passport without the permission of a male relative. 

But the reforms have not yet reached Alhathloul's case.

"I have to be optimistic. If I'm not optimistic, I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything. So I have to be ... The good thing is Loujain is still being remembered."

Allegations of torture

Early in her detention Alhathloul told her family she'd been held in solitary confinement and suffered electrocution, flogging, and sexual assault. The family says her treatment has since improved.

Alhathloul, who turned 30 in Ha'er Prison in August, was a well-known activist known for her vivacity and spirit even prior to her high-profile arrest.

In 2014, following her graduation from UBC, Alhathloul was arrested for live-streaming herself breaking Saudi Arabia's female driving ban by driving across the border from the United Arab Emirates.

The stunt, which captured the world's attention, earned her 70 days of detention. She followed that up by running in Saudi Arabia's first election open to women. 

When, after 14 months of detention, she was offered a deal that would have let her walk free if she posted a video statement denying that she'd been tortured, she tore it up.

The Alhathloul family members who remain in Saudi Arabia have been put under a travel ban, preventing Loujain, her sister, brother, and parents from leaving the country.

Her two sisters in Brussels and Walid, in Canada, have been unable to visit Saudi Arabia, fearing they would be unable to leave.

As international borders close to stem the spread of COVID-19, it's a situation people around the world can relate to a little more.

"We have built some sort of [ability] to cope with everything that's going on with COVID," said Walid Alhathloul.

"It was a good exercise to be ready for the worst."


Michelle Ghoussoub

Reporter, CBC News

Michelle Ghoussoub is a reporter and anchor for CBC News based in Vancouver. She has received a nomination for the Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reporter. She can be reached at

With files from Reuters and the Associated Press