Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018, will stand trial in a specialized criminal court set up for terrorism-related offenses, according to statements from her family.
Her younger sister, Lina al-Hathloul, said in a tweet on Wednesday, November 25, that the Saudi authorities transferred her case to the special terror court citing the “lack of jurisdiction” by the regular criminal court. Lina al-Hathloul said her sister looked extremely frail during her appearance in court and her “body was shaking uncontrollably, her voice very soft and shaky.” Despite being in such bad physical condition, Loujain still proceeded to read the four-page defense to the judge herself, her other sister, Alia al-Hathloul stated in one of her tweets. Earlier on Tuesday, Lina had termed the court appearance as a sham and show trial which has been arbitrarily resumed by the government authorities after Loujain spent over 900 days in prison. The activist had launched a second hunger strike on October 26 to protest against the prison authorities denying her the right to maintain regular contact with her family.
The transfer of Loujain’s trial from a regular court to a special terror court was immediately condemned by activists and human rights groups. Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf in a statement said that “with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record back in the spotlight as it hosts the G20 this year, the Saudi authorities could have decided to end the two-year nightmare for brave human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul. Instead, in a disturbing move, they transferred her case to the SCC; an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials. This is yet another sign that Saudi Arabia’s claims of reform on human rights are a farce.”
According to her sister, the trial is abjectly unfair as her parents have been blocked from giving Loujain necessary legal documents. Her family, as well as human rights groups, have expressed the fear that she will be forced to give a false confession as the Saudi government is facing increasing criticism for its persecution of journalists, bloggers, human rights activists, atheists and secularists, as well as religious minorities.
International criticism against Loujain al-Hathloul’s treatment mounted as the oil-rich Gulf kingdom recently played host to the G20 summit, which ironically had ‘women’s empowerment’ as one of its themes. In the last few months, there has been a renewed focus on Saudi Arabia for its treatment of political prisoners as well as due to its ongoing deadly military intervention in Yemen.
Loujain was an active campaigner against the country’s male guardianship system and in favor of women being permitted to drive. She was arrested in the United Arab Emirates and subsequently brought to Saudi Arabia. She has been accused by the Saudi government of being a traitor and “harming the interests of the country,” and faces serious criminal charges including “communicating with foreign bodies hostile to Saudi Arabia, “recruiting government employees to collect confidential information” and “delivering financial support to entities overseas who are hostile to the kingdom.”
During her time in prison, Loujain was allegedly subjected to extreme psychological and physical torture, including flogging and electric shocks, in order to extract false confessions from her. She was also reportedly sexually harassed in jail by prison officials. Loujain has said she faced rape threats from prison officials. She has also been restricted from contacting her family and lawyers during her detention period. In protest, she launched her first hunger strike in September this year after not being allowed to contact her family for more than 90 days.
Several activists in Saudi jails have reported experiencing similar treatment and being subjected to various forms of mental and physical coercion, torture and sexual harassment while in prison. Hundreds of Saudi citizens are incarcerated for long durations without trial or due legal process. Many are also not aware of the charges placed against them. According to human rights organization Grant Liberty, since Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, at least 309 political prisoners have suffered human rights violations at the hands of the Saudi regime.