Saudi Arabia: Women’s rights activist ‘who was abused and tortured’ goes on trial
The trial of a prominent women’s rights activist has begun in Saudi Arabia, three years after she was first jailed.
The family of Loujain al Hathloul has told Sky News they were informed late on Wednesday night that she would appear at Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court for a trial which United Nations Human Rights experts have described as “alarming”.
No details of the trial have been released by Saudi authorities or the court, which is known to deal with cases involving terrorism.
Ms al Hathloul rose to prominence more than three years ago with her call for Saudi women to be allowed to drive.
She was among a group of female rights activists arrested without clear explanation in May 2018, weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted the female driving ban.
News of her trial comes as her sister detailed devastating allegations – denied by the Saudi authorities – of sexual abuse and torture.
In an interview with Sky News, Lina al Hathloul said her sister’s physical and mental state were both terrible.
“My sister is really not healthy,” Lina said in a conversation via Skype from Berlin.
“She was on a hunger strike… her body was really shaking and her voice was very low. Psychologically and morally, she’s holding on, but she’s the weakest my parents have ever seen her.
“She says that it’s useless for her to try to survive this prison after nearly three years of the pre-trial detention.”
Lina went on: “She said the only thing that kept her going during these three years was the moments where she would talk to my parents and now even this… they deprived her from my parents’ voice, so she said that if she doesn’t have any contact with my parents, she would go on a hunger strike.”
Elizabeth Broderick, chairperson of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, said: “We are extremely alarmed to hear that Ms al Hathloul, who has been in detention for more than two years on spurious charges, is now being tried by a specialised terrorism court for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
“We call once again on Saudi Arabia to immediately release Ms al Hathloul, a woman human rights defender who has greatly contributed to advancing women’s rights in a country where gender discrimination and stereotyping are deeply entrenched in the fabric of society.”
Last month, a report authored by Scottish barrister Baroness Kennedy alleged that Ms al Hathloul was one of a number of female activists subjected to torture and sexual abuse while in detention. The report did not provide any direct evidence to back up its allegations.
Her sister told Sky News that Loujain didn’t initially describe any alleged torture but over a series of sporadic visits given to her parents, which have now been stopped, she began to talk about her alleged ordeal.
“Loujain really started crying and said that what she used to call a ‘palace’ – the hotel – was basically a basement in a palace that is a torture facility – and they have everything for that,” Lina said.
“So they had electrocutions, they would waterboard her, they would flog her, beat her, sexually harass her, deprive her of sleep, force feeding.
“And what was very shocking to know is that they weren’t even trying to get any confessions. They were just enjoying this torture.”
Speaking to Sky News last month, as Saudi Arabia was preparing to host the G20 summit, the country’s minister of state for foreign affairs dismissed the allegations of torture, abuse and lack of visiting rights.
“On what basis do you say that she wasn’t granted on these rights?” Adel al Jubeir said.
“Because I believe that our security officials dispute that in terms of no contact and in terms of hunger strike and in terms of abuse. This issue was taken very seriously by the leadership of my country and His Majesty, the Crown Prince, ordered an investigation into the issue, the allegations of abuse, of torture.”
He continued: “And so on what basis do people say this? We, as far as I know, this is not correct. She’s detained like other detainees. She’s facing trial. And when the trial is over, she will be found guilty or found innocent. It’s up to the courts.”
The foreign minister said that, in line with the Saudi legal process, none of the evidence against her will be revealed until the trial has concluded and he insisted she wasn’t arrested because of her women’s rights activism.
“It has to do with national security,” he told Sky News.
“It has to do with taking funds from foreign powers and giving them to hostile powers. It has to do with trying to recruit people in sensitive positions in order to obtain sensitive documents and give them to powers hostile to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
However, the family says the charge sheet relating to her case makes no explicit references to these issues.
“I know, we all know, that Saudi Arabia is becoming a police state; that the repression is as harsh as it’s ever been in Saudi Arabia,” Lina said to Sky News in response to the foreign minister’s comments.
“It’s very difficult for a public figure such as him not to talk about it because he is basically part of this whole system.
“But what I want to say is that there are words to use and he can just basically say that he doesn’t have any knowledge about the case, which would be much easier for him, because now we know that he’s lying and covering up Saudi Arabia’s crimes.”
The irony is that by imprisoning her, Saudi authorities have simply raised her profile and that of the cause she represents.
Her case also undermines the country’s attempt to present itself as a reformed kingdom; a place where women can now drive, where religious police have gone, where tourists are encouraged to come and the host, this year, of the G20.
The reality, says her family, is very different.
Lina said: “My message to the international community is that I think there’s more research to do about what Saudi Arabia is really inside of the country and that they have to be aware that now there are two Saudi Arabias: the Saudi Arabia the West sees and the Saudi Arabia the Saudi people live under.”
Despite being deeply concerned about her wellbeing, the al Hathloul family believes her strength and determination for justice will carry her through.
Lina said: “I must say, it’s really Loujain who gives us the strength, it’s not the other way around. She’s so strong and we have this duty of speaking up for her.
“If we don’t, then her voice is just lost and she can disappear. So it’s the fact that we’re hopeful that she will get released and the fact that we know that silence doesn’t help. She was being tortured when we were silent. So now we have to be strong. It’s our duty.”
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