Saudi women’s rights campaigner who has been ‘tortured and sexually harassed in prison’ goes on trial

Maya OppenheimWomen’s Correspondent

Loujain al-Hathloul peacefully campaigned alongside other activists for years to allow women the right to drive

A leading Saudi women’s rights campaigner who has allegedly been tortured and sexually harassed in prison stood trial on Wednesday.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who defied the kingdom’s recently overturned ban on female drivers, was arrested in May 2018 along with 10 other women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

The other campaigners, who include Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi, will also appear before the Criminal Court in the capital, Riyadh.

Court president Ibrahim al-Sayari told reporters and diplomats, who were barred from attending the session, that charges will be presented against the women – although it is not clear what they are.

Mr Sayari cited privacy concerns for not making the trial public.

No formal charges have been published but the official Saudi Press Agency said the women were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country”. 

Other state-affiliated media reported the women were accused of violating Royal Decree 44a, under which dissidents can face terrorism charges punishable by between three and 20 years in prison.

The arrests have been applauded in the country’s mainstream press and flyers have appeared on social media showing the activists with a “traitor” stamp over their faces. Government-aligned press have also published photos of the detained activists and branded them traitors.

Some of the women appeared in the courtroom together on Wednesday, but their cases appeared to be separate, with relatives entering only for certain parts of the session.

ALQST, a London-based Saudi rights group, said the women were charged under the kingdom’s cybercrime law. Conviction could see prison sentences ranging from one to 10 years. The accusations are related to human rights work and communications with “hostile entities”, ALQST said on Twitter.

Walid al-Hathloul, the 31-year-old brother of Loujain, has said his sister was made to sign a request to be pardoned. 

Ms Hathloul’s family and Human Rights Watch have alleged in recent months that she and other female detainees have been tortured and sexually harassed in jail. Saudi officials have denied those allegations.

The campaigner has told her parents she has been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder. 

“They saw that her hands were shaking, they saw the signs of torture – the burns and bruises on her legs,” Mr Hathloul, her brother, told The Independent last month.

“One of the interrogators put his legs on my sister’s legs like you would put your legs on the table. He was smoking and puffing in front of her face,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mr Hathloul tweeted she was not allowed to have a lawyer and had not been provided with the list of indictments.

Relatives of the women’s rights campaigners said they were told at the last minute that the trial had been moved from the Specialised Criminal Court, which was set up to try terrorism cases but is often used for political offences.

It was not clear what was behind the decision but diplomats said they were hopeful it indicated a more lenient handling of the cases after months of lobbying by western governments.

Ms Hathloul, who appeared alongside the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, at the One Young World summit in Ottawa in 2016 for young leaders, peacefully campaigned alongside other activists for years to allow women the right to drive. 

The University of British Columbia graduate, who was ranked third in 2015’s list of most powerful Arab women in the world, has been arrested and released several times for defying the driving ban. In 2014, she was detained when she attempted to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates. 

Ms Hathloul served 73 days at a juvenile detention centre as a result and documented many of her experiences on Twitter. She was one of the first women to run for a seat on a municipal council in 2015, but lost. 

Saudi Arabia was rebuked at the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time earlier this month when a statement signed by 36 countries called on the country to release human rights activists.

The statement referred to Ms Hathloul, as well as other women’s rights activists, as individuals detained “for exercising their fundamental freedoms”.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights has said it is “deeply concerned” about the “wellbeing” of the activists and is fearful they may not get a fair trial.

“Prosecutions in Saudi Arabia have long been characterised by breaches of fair trial standards, in particular, the use of torture,” they said in a statement.

Samah Hadid, Middle East director of campaigns at Amnesty International, said it was “concerning that they are likely to be charged for simply defending women’s rights”. 

Saudi Arabia has faced extensive scrutiny and criticism over its human rights record in the wake of the case but also in its role in the ongoing war in Yemen and over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last October.

A representative for the Saudi authorities has not yet responded to a request for comment.