Family of UBC grad imprisoned in Saudi Arabia fears for her safety amid sudden silence

Click to play video: 'Growing concerns for UBC grad imprisoned in Saudi Arabia'
Growing concerns for UBC grad imprisoned in Saudi Arabia
WATCH: Family and friends of a UBC grad are concerned about her health, now that they haven't heard from her for more than two months. Catherine Urquhart reports – Jul 21, 2020

The family and friends of a University of British Columbia graduate imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for defying a ban on women driving say she hasn’t been in contact with them in nearly two months.

Loujain al-Hathloul‘s family and friends said they haven’t spoken with her since June 9 and fear she’s dead or may soon be killed.

Al-Hathloul was arrested in 2014 after driving to Saudi Arabia from United Arab Emirates to protest the ban.

In 2018, she was detained and put in prison, and since then, has been tortured and sexually assaulted in custody, according to fellow UBC grad, Dalya al-Masri who has been advocating for her release.

“Loujain faced flogging. She would face different accounts of sexual assault, whipping … during Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, they would force Loujain to eat and break her fast,” al-Masri told Global News.

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“Loujain didn’t go into the explicit details, but she said she was raped, sexually abused and even had accounts of sexual abuse on her thighs and different marks and bruises.”

Saudi officials have in the past denied allegations of torture and sexual assault against prisoners.

Al-Masri said al-Hathloul has tried to stay in contact with her family, including her brother in Toronto.

But for weeks now, there’s been silence. Authorities won’t give her family any answers.

“Her parents haven’t been able to see her. So they think she might be dead or she might be dying soon,” al-Masri said.

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That fear for her life is exacerbated by the recent death of a Saudi journalist shortly after his release from prison.

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Arab news outlets are reporting that Saleh al Shehi died on July 15, two months after being released on medical grounds.

He reportedly died of COVID-19 — but Loujain’s sister, Alia al-Hathloul, said on Twitter that al Shehi’s health deteriorated in prison.

“He entered prison for practicing journalism and was in full health. He was released from prison for weeks to die with his family, and the perpetrator gets rid of the responsibility of killing him,” Alia al-Hathloul tweeted.

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That came weeks after the death of Saudi writer and activist, Abdullah al-Hamid, who died in April.

Loujain’s other sister, Lina al-Hathloul, said on Twitter that al-Hamid “was advised by a doctor that he needed open-heart surgery, but prison authorities threatened to cut off his contact with his family if he told his relatives about his condition'”.

Al-Masri, who has a background in international relations, diplomacy, and human rights violations in the Middle East, said medical care is often withheld from prisoners in some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.

“This is done on purpose. So medical care isn’t allowed inside. And this is kind of done to have people’s emotional and psychological torture kind of heightened at the point of where their physical health is heightening,” she said.

Al-Masri said it’s a common tactic — and one that often prevents political prisoners from engaging in activism even if they’re released.

“They’re probably attempting to keep her there until her physical health has dwindled to the point where she can’t recover,” she told Global News.

“This is what they do with prisoners if they’re at a really bad state — they’ll let them go, the prisoner will be back with their families for a few weeks or a month or a few months, and then they’ll pass away.”

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Family, friends and advocates have relaunched a social media campaign demanding al-Hathloul’s release using the hashtag #FreeLoujain.

Al-Masri said she thinks the Canadian government should get involved.

“The Canadian government does have a responsibility in inserting itself and finding out how we can free Loujain. Because she went to UBC, she lived in Vancouver, she gave to the community when she was there in her time,” al-Masri said.

But even if al-Hathloul didn’t have a Canadian connection, al-Masri said as a country that prides itself on a good track record of human rights, Canada should demand that Saudi Arabia ensure the woman’s safety.

Al-Hathloul’s case has garnered international attention from a number of human rights organizations, and governments.

A petition demanding al-Hathloul’s release started by Amnesty International has garnered more than 28,000 signatures.

In January, Global Affairs Canada said it was monitoring the situation closely and had raised its concerns with Saudi officials.

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“Canada remains committed to advocating for detained activists in their struggle for gender equality and human rights,” a spokesperson told Global News in an emailed statement.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California wrote to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States about al-Hathloul’s welfare.

“(Ms. al-Hathloul) has been held for long periods without contact with her family, and she has reportedly been subjected to physical and mental torture while in prison as well as threats of rape and murder,” Schiff wrote in the letter.

“I request an update on Ms. al-Hathloul’s condition, and reiterate my previously stated concerns about her welfare, and the well-being of other individuals in Saudi Arabia who, much like you, have peacefully advocated for women’s rights.”

Al-Hathloul’s trial has been delayed indefinitely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But just weeks after she was arrested in May 2018, the kingdom gave women the right to drive.

So why is al-Hathloul still imprisoned? Al-Masri believes it’s because al-Hathloul has become a symbol of women’s rights activism.

“People think that the reason Loujain is still in jail is that she’s seen as a threat to Saudi Arabia. She’s seen as a symbol of freedom, of having your own thoughts, of having the right to free speech,” al-Masri said.

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“She’s seen as a threat to Saudi Arabia and specifically the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. And this is why she’s still in prison two years later.”

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