Activism is not terrorism: human rights groups condemn sentencing of Saudi women’s rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul
Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court has sentenced Saudi women’s rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison.
Having already spent 958 days in detention by the time her trial ended, Loujain’s sentence includes a suspension of two years and ten months in addition to the time already served since May 2018, meaning her release should be scheduled for March 2021. Loujain is also required to serve three years of probation — during which she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity — and will be placed on a five-year travel ban.
A leading figure of the Saudi women’s rights movement, 31-year-old Loujain was detained in May 2018, and her case was transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court on 25 November 2020. Her prosecution has been met with widespread international criticism and intensified scrutiny over Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and crackdowns on any hint of dissent.
According to a 2019 report by the American Bar Association, the Saudi Specialised Criminal Court has been used to target human rights activists and ‘routinely convicts individuals of terrorism charges without any meaningful evidence’.
On 15 May 2018, the Saudi government began a campaign of arrests of Saudi Women’s Human Rights Defenders. Whilst five of the women human rights defenders detained in 2018 have been provisionally released, Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdulaziz, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, and Miyaa Al-Zahrani remain in detention.
During their detention, there have been multiple reports that the women human rights defenders have been tortured, including being electrocuted, waterboarded, and sexually assaulted.
A website set up by Loujain’s family reported that Saud al-Qahtani, a top royal adviser, was present several times when Loujain was tortured. Loujain told her family that sometimes al-Qahtani laughed at her and threatened to rape and kill her and throw her body into the sewage system.
The absurd charges against Loujain include calling for the end of the oppressive male guardianship system, contacting international organizations, speaking about her detention, supporting Saudi human rights movements, and applying for a job with the United Nations.
In a public statement, Loujain’s sister Lina Al-Hathloul said: “My sister is the bravest person I know, and while we are devastated that she will have to spend even one more day in prison, our fight is far from over. We will not rest until Loujain is free.”
In 2019, Lina spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying: “Loujain was imprisoned for promoting the implementation of the Vienna Declaration, which affirms the full and equal enjoyment by women of all human rights. Loujain did not get to drive in her hometown of Riyadh because she was arrested right before the Saudi government lifted the driving ban for women.
“People’s right to protect and promote the human rights of others is protected under international human rights law. Despite this, too often human rights defenders face violence and imprisonment, simply for taking a stand for equality and human rights. Loujain’s activism is not terrorism.”
Saudi Arabia finally granted women the right to drive in June 2018.
Saudi Arabia must be held accountable for these human rights violations. Suad Abu Dayyeh from international women’s rights organization Equality Now, said:
“Saudi Arabia is obligated to uphold international human rights standards and this includes ending the unlawful detainment and persecution of women’s rights activists. Peacefully advocating for gender equality must never be treated as a crime and Saudi Arabia’s citizens should be free to exercise their civil rights without fear of intimidation, torture, or arrest.”
The Free Saudi Activists Coalition consists of Equality Now, Women’s March Global, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights Bahrain (ADHRB), Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and CIVICUS,
The Free Saudi Activists Coalition condemns the verdict against Loujain and urges governments around the world, including the incoming Biden/Harris Administration, to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their continued disregard for human rights and call for the immediate and unconditional release of Loujain Al-Hathloul and all Saudi Activists and Women’s Human Rights Defenders.