Loujain al Hathloul’s activism for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia made her a target of the autocratic state. It led to her being jailed for more than two years on flimsy charges.
Saudi Arabia seems to have learned nothing from the consequences of dissident Jamal Khashoggi's murder, as the country’s infamous judicial system continues to dither on a controversial case against an internationally-recognised women’s rights activist, Loujain al Hathloul.
Hathloul appeared in a criminal court in Riyadh on Wednesday, showing signs of poor health.
“Loujain’s family reported that she looked weak in court, that her body was shaking uncontrollably and that her voice was faint and shaky,” said a recent press release of the Loujain Al Hathloul support group, which has been established by her family and supporters.
“The family is not available for an interview,” said the support group in reply to TRT World's requests for further information about Loujain and her litigation. Her parents, who continue to live in Saudi Arabia, were in the courtroom during the hearing.
After yesterday’s session, her case was referred to the Specialised Criminal Court, a terrorism court, shocking both family members and her supporters, who were hoping for her release. International interest in the case, and the pressure it brings against her imprisonment, shows Saudi government in a bad light.
The Riyadh court however washed its hands of the case, claiming it lacked jurisdiction over the issue, despite hearing it out for nearly two years.
“My main question is: how is it possible for the judge to realize the court lacks jurisdiction after dealing with the case for 1 year and 8 months?” wrote Lina, Hathloul’s sister, on Twitter.
“Nobody can be fooled anymore. This is MBS’s Saudi Arabia’s definition of a fair trial and of an Independent Court,” Lina added, referring to the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
“Transferring Loujain al Hathloul 's case to the ‘Terrorism’ court doesn't make her a terrorist. It exposes though the brutality & hypocrisy of Saudi authorities that instrumentalise 'women empowerment' to whitewash their image, while prosecuting women’s activists under sham charges,” said an Amnesty Gulf statement on Twitter.
“Since 2011, Saudi Arabia’s 'Terrorism' court has been used as an instrument of repression to silence dissent. It has punished journalists, human rights defenders, political activists, writers, religious clerics and women’s rights activists severely,” the statement added.
MBS and his surrogates, like the country’s high-profile Foreign Minister Adel al Jubair, have previously suggested that Loujain was arrested over charges of espionage, aiming to topple the autocratic regime, defending women’s rights and communicating with diplomats, journalists and human rights groups.
But much to the dismay of Loujain’s family and international community, the Saudi state could not share any evidence against her while she has been on pretrial detention for nearly three years.
During the recent controversial G-20 summit, which was hosted by Riyadh despite many protests from human rights groups, Jubeir tried to make sense of her arrest with a twisted argument.
“In our legal system, the evidence is presented after the verdict is rendered, so you don’t embarrass someone, who turns out to be innocent. That’s how the system works,” Jubeir told the BBC during an interview.
But if the Saudi system has so much concern not to embarrass “someone, who turns out to be innocent”, why were the country’s top authorities, including MBS and Jubeir, continuing to accuse Loujain with espionage and other unproven allegations, embarrassing her and her family and everyone else?
The kingdom appears to have no true answer to that question except making casual political arguments to cover up its problematic conduct against dissidents and human rights groups.
In the press release, Loujani support group indicated that in August 2019, Saudi authorities approached the women’s rights activist to sign a document to renounce her torture claims in exchange for her release.
“Loujain refused to sign the statement and has been instead kept in solitary confinement, disappeared for long periods of time (during these periods of disappearance Loujain has previously been tortured),” the statement said.
She has also been on hunger strike since late October to protest her prison conditions and the state of her inability to communicate with family members. Again, however, Saudi authorities have shown their brutality even during her hunger strike, according to her support group statement.
“After 2 weeks of hunger strike, authorities came into the prison and would wake Loujain up multiple times during the night which caused Loujain to stop her hunger strike as she was psychologically exhausted,” said the statement.
As well as Loujain, there are four other defendants, three are women’s activists, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada and Nouf Abdulaziz, in the same case. Very little has as yet been reported about their prison conditions.
There are nearly 30,000 political prisoners in the kingdom according to the Islamic Human Rights Commission.
“We have a lot of people in jail here in Saudi Arabia for various crimes,” Jubeir said during the BBC interview.