As so often, the ire of the international community is turned towards Saudi Arabia, outraged at the plight of activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has languished in prison in the country for around 500 days. UN officials have been calling for Hathloul’s release, citing the fact that the laws she was imprisoned for opposing have since been repealed.
“It is shockingly hypocritical that Ms. Hathloul remains in prison for campaigning to change laws which have since been amended . . . . Indeed, she should never have been imprisoned in the first place for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” UN experts said in a statement on September 29. Hathloul’s latest hearing, which was set for April 2019, was cancelled. So far, no new date has been scheduled.
Hathloul, who was arrested on May 15, 2018, was a major figure in the campaign to repeal the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia; she was jailed only a few weeks before the ban was repealed.
Hathloul, who was arrested on May 15, 2018, was a major figure in the campaign to repeal the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia; she was jailed only a few weeks before the ban was repealed. The arrest of Hathloul and her colleagues marked the start of a major crackdown against female human rights activists in the kingdom, most of whom were detained on what the OHCHR called “spurious national security grounds.” Activists were accused of having trespassed “against the country’s religious and national foundations.”
The charges against Hathloul are so minor that, even without the recent repeal of the laws under which she was prosecuted, the case borders on the absurd. Those charges include applying for a job at the UN and communicating with foreign journalists and rights groups. Many of these same groups have praised the progressive steps made in Saudi Arabia in recent months, particularly in relation to male guardianship laws, but have stressed that the world must not lose sight of the significant abuses that continue to abound in the country, particularly in the context of the crackdown against women’s rights activists.
On June 27, 2018, the OHCHR demanded that the Saudi regime release the women human rights defenders who had been arrested during the crackdown, which had begun on May 15, 2018, following the announcement that the ban on driving licenses for women would be dropped.
“In stark contrast with this celebrated moment of liberation for Saudi women, women’s human rights defenders have been arrested and detained on a wide scale across the country, which is truly worrying and perhaps a better indication of the government’s approach to women’s human rights,” read the OHCHR statement. “Women human rights defenders face compounded stigma, not only because of their work as human rights defenders, but also because of discrimination on gender grounds,” they added. It is feared that many arrested in 2018 may be given sentences of up to 20 years.
Amnesty International alleged in a report that Hathloul has been tortured in prison, along with fellow activists.
Amnesty International alleged in a report that Hathloul has been tortured in prison, along with fellow activists. “We call upon the Government to immediately release Ms. Al-Hathloul and all other human rights defenders in Saudi prisons, and urge the government to launch a prompt, effective and independent investigation into whether she has been tortured,” the UN experts said on September 29. “No one should suffer such adversity for exercising their right to defend the human rights of others.” It is alleged that Hathloul refused a deal that would have offered her freedom in exchange for recanting some of her statements.
Hathloul’s siblings have added credence to the allegation that she has faced torture and sexual harassment in prison, adding that Saudi authorities have offered to release her in exchange for her silence about the abuse. According to her brother, Walid, Loujain al-Hathloul was asked to sign a document stating that she has been well treated in prison and appear on camera saying the same. Walid says that his sister did sign the document but refused to appear on camera.
Lina Hathloul, Loujain’s sister, put it starkly on Twitter: “Whatever happens I am certifying it one more time: Loujain has been brutally tortured and sexually harassed,” she wrote. The family claim that Hathloul has been whipped, beaten, and given severe electric shocks at the hands of her torturers. They added that she has undergone psychological torture, alleging that she was regularly woken in the middle of the night by masked men who would shout threats in her ears. In a now deleted tweet, Alia Hathloul, another of Loujain’s sisters, wrote: “Deny what happened even if you have to record it on camera. What is important is that you are with us, I miss you.”
A number of those imprisoned along with Hathloul testified before a judge in Riyadh in March this year to having been mistreated in multiple ways, including being waterboarded and forced to hang from the ceiling for long periods of time.
The claims of Hathloul’s family match those of a recent Human Rights Watch report. The allegations are also in keeping with the testimony of other women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. A number of those imprisoned along with Hathloul testified before a judge in Riyadh in March this year to having been mistreated in multiple ways, including being waterboarded and forced to hang from the ceiling for long periods of time.
Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on the freedom of religion, and Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings were all among those who issued the statement. It was Callamard who, in June, issued the report that concluded that top Saudi officials, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were directly complicit in the infamous murder of Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is alleged by Hathloul’s family that a top aide to the Crown Prince, a man named Saud al-Qahtani, personally oversaw her torture.
Loujain al-Hathloul is a symbol of what Saudi Arabia is doing to its activists and to its female population. Her courage has caught the attention of the world and puts further pressure on the Saudi regime both to release her and to improve its abysmal record on women’s rights.
Loujain Al-Hathloul made the Time’s 100 List of Most Influential People in the “Icons” category in April 2019
Time’s recognition post by Sarah Leah Whitson* :
”The Saudi people owe a huge debt of gratitude to Loujain al-Hathloul. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to modernize the kingdom, the most celebrated change, allowing women to drive in June 2018, was built on the fearless, longtime efforts of activists like Loujain. She was among the first to challenge laws that are out of touch with Saudi Arabia’s young majority population, boldly posting videos of herself driving, running for the country’s first municipal elections to allow women in 2015, and signing the 14,000-strong petition urging an end to restrictions on women’s rights to marry or travel outside the country without a male guardian’s permission. Unfortunately activism also revealed the crown prince’s intolerance for civil society. Saudi authorities have jailed Loujain, along with other women activists, over and over again to silence them. In fact, Loujain should be thanked and embraced by the kingdom for what she is: a model of Saudi womanhood.”
*Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch