Concern grows for detained UBC grad after Saudi Arabia seeks death penalty for another activist

Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is now seeking the death penalty against five human rights activists from the kingdom's Eastern Province who are currently on trial in a secretive terrorism court, according to groups including Human Rights Watch.

Loujain al-Hathloul has been detained for more than 100 days with no access to legal counsel

Loujain Al-Hathloul has been described as one of the most outspoken women's rights activists in the kingdom. In 2014, she was detained for more than 70 days after she attempted to live stream herself driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. (Facebook)

A human rights group is concerned for the well-being of a University of British Columbia graduate who has been detained in Saudi Arabia for more than 100 days, after the kingdom sought the death sentence for another women's rights activist.

UBC alumna Loujain al-Hathloul, 28, was arrested May 15, along with nine other prominent Saudi activists.

They were allegedly arrested for trying to destabilize Saudi Arabia with foreign funding, but have not been charged or given access to legal counsel. Some of the women have, recently, been allowed to contact their families. 

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

"​To be honest, with every day that goes by our concern for the well-being of Loujain increases," said Jackie Hansen, with Amnesty International Canada. 

Al-Hathloul has been described as one of the most outspoken women's rights activists in the kingdom. In 2014, she was detained for more than 70 days after she attempted to live stream herself driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.

She attended the University of British Columbia between 2009 and 2013, graduating with a degree in French.

According to groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is now seeking the death penalty against five other human rights activists, from the kingdom's Eastern Province, who are currently on trial in a terrorism court.

Among those detainees is Israa al-Ghomgham who, according to HRW, has been charged with incitement to protest and providing moral support to rioters. She could be the first woman to face the death penalty for rights-related work. "Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behaviour, is monstrous," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW, in a statement on Wednesday.

Hansen said the timing of the activists' arrest was of particular concern.

"It was at a time when Saudi Arabia was preparing to lift its ban on women driving, and yet here Saudi Arabia was detaining the very women who peacefully advocated for this right to drive," she said.

At the time, Global Affairs Canada denounced the arrests, calling them "inconsistent with the Saudi government's stated commitment to create a more tolerant and open society."

Saudi-Canada relations deteriorate 

Hansen said Amnesty International has grown increasingly concerned for the activists' well-being as the Saudi-Canada relationship has deteriorated.

"Saudi Arabia has now escalated the situation by continuing to detain additional women human rights defenders," she said.

In early August, the kingdom arrested Samar Badawi, a prominent women's rights advocate and sister of blogger Raif Badawi, who has been jailed since 2012 for his criticism of the regime. 

After Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland criticized the additional arrests in a tweet, Saudi Arabia responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador, selling off Canadian assets and ordering Saudi students to leave Canada by the end of the summer.

​Hansen said that while Amnesty International was pleased to see Canada taking a firm stance, it has been "disheartening" that other states have not since spoken up publicly.

"We're not talking about things that are controversial. We are talking about basic fundamental human rights," she said.

Saudi Arabia's embassy in Canada did not immediately respond to CBC's request for comment.

With files from the Associated Press

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About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

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

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