Family of jailed Saudi activist implores Canada to call out kingdom's human rights record at G20

·4 min read

The family of a women's rights activist who has been jailed in Saudi Arabia for more than two years is calling on the federal government to hold the kingdom to account for its human rights record as it hosts the G20 summit in Riyadh.

Loujain Alhathloul, 31, a graduate of the University of British Columbia and internationally recognized activist born in Saudi Arabia, has been detained since May 2018, when she was arrested along with nine other women's rights activists. She is currently believed to be on a hunger strike. Before her arrest in 2018, she was detained in 2014 for 70 days before being released.

Saudi Arabia is hosting a virtual version of the G20 summit on Saturday and Sunday, where leaders of the world's biggest economies are expected to address fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and financial aid to the world's hardest-hit countries.

Alhathloul's brother, Walid Alhathloul, speaking from Toronto, said he hoped Canada would use the summit — widely seen as an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to earn legitimacy on the world stage — to call out the kingdom's human rights violations, including the detention of women's rights activists and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"I understand the concern of the federal government in that it's a very sensitive situation given the relationship between Saudi and Canada," he said.

"But really there is no downside for Canada to stand for human rights [at] the G20."

Walid said his family last heard from his sister three weeks ago and that she said she planned to start another hunger strike.

"Since then we haven't heard anything from her. We are not aware of what is going on there. They did not allow us to contact her and they did not allow her to contact us as well," he said.

Alhathloul — who is not a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident but lived in Canada for five years as a student — had previously told her family that she'd been held in solitary confinement and suffered electrocution, flogging and sexual assault during her detention.

Global Affairs Canada said in a statement on Sunday that the federal government is concerned about Alhathloul's case and will continue to monitor her situation. It said it has "frequently raised Canada's human rights concerns with the Saudi government, both in public and in private," but it did not say whether those concerns were specifically raised at the G20.

Alhathloul, who had an international profile prior to her detention, was first accused of attempting to destabilize the Saudi kingdom. Since then, those charges have been changed to communicating with foreign journalists and attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has indefinitely postponed her trial and disrupted her usual communications with her family.

With so many international eyes on Saudi Arabia, the G20 summit has renewed an ongoing campaign for her freedom. Amnesty International raised the issue in a full-page ad in the Financial Times, and Alhathloul's photo was projected onto the Louvre Museum in Paris by Human Rights Watch.

Since her detention she has received a number of human rights awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But despite the campaigning, there has been little movement and, recently, some confusion surrounding her case.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, told the Guardian newspaper that the kingdom was considering clemency for her as a result of growing pressure over its human rights record ahead of the G20 — only for the embassy to deny that report days later.

"I was skeptical because we have experienced that previously," said Walid Alhathloul. But he said he hopes a U.S. administration under president-elect Joe Biden could bring change to his sister's case. Biden has previously pledged to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" over its human rights failings.

"I really hope the president-elect is able to keep his word because the situation in Saudi in terms of human rights is really deteriorating," Alhathloul's brother said.

CBC News has reached out the Saudi Embassy for comment.