Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi women's rights activist, goes on trial
JC News|March. 13, 2019
The trial of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi women's rights activist, began on Wednesday, according to her family.
The 29-year-old was arrested in March of last year as she was driving down a highway in the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living.
She was then sent to Saudi Arabia and detained. Hathloul was released days later, only to be arrested again a few weeks later in a sweep that targeted 10 women's right-to-drive activists.
While no formal charges have been published, the official Saudi Press Agency said Hathloul and the women's rights activists were accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities."
Other state-aligned media reported that the women were accused of violating Royal Decree 44a, under which dissidents can face terrorism charges punishable by between three and 20 years' imprisonment.
The arrests were lauded in the kingdom's mainstream press, where government-aligned media published photos of the detained activists and branded them "traitors."
Hathloul's brother, Walid al-Hathloul, told CNN that she has not had access to a lawyer and that, prior to her trial, she was not aware of the charges against her.
Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to CNN's request for comment.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia was collectively rebuked at the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time. A statement, signed by 36 countries, called on the kingdom to release human rights activists.
The statement cited Hathloul, as well as other detained women's rights activists, as individuals detained "for exercising their fundamental freedoms."
Hathloul was originally told she would be tried in a terror court in Riyadh, according to her family, but she was notified that the trial was being moved to a criminal court just eight hours before it began. Initial reports that Hathloul would be tried in a court that normally deals with terrorist offenses heightened speculation that she would receive a harsh sentence.
The State Security Presidency, a powerful security apparatus that reports directly to King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had been monitoring the detainees prior to their arrest, according to the kingdom's official news agency.
Another detained activist, Aziza al-Yousef, who is over 70, was one of the country's first activists campaigning for the right to drive and signed a petition in recent years calling for an end to the guardianship laws that grant men control over their female family members.
Eman al-Nafjan, a third detainee, is a well-known blogger who drove in Riyadh in 2013 as part of a protest that attracted international attention.
Yousef, Nafjan and human rights activist Amal al-Harbi will also go on trial today, though the type of court in which the trials will take place remains unclear, according to Amnesty International.
Weeks after the arrests of the women's right-to-drive activists, the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia was lifted.
In January, Walid al-Hathloul detailed in a CNN opinion piece the abuse allegedly endured by his sister in prison. During a visit to the prison by her parents, she told them that she was regularly whipped, beaten, electrocuted and sexually harassed in a basement she called the "palace of terror."
Saudi activists and Human Rights Watch have also alleged that she and other female detainees have been tortured and sexually harassed in prison.
They also allege that a former top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, was present during at least one of the interrogation sessions. Qahtani allegedly threatened to rape, kill and throw one of the detainees into the sewage system, according to Human Rights Watch and other people familiar with the events.
Qahtani, who was also implicated in the Istanbul consulate murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was removed from his post as royal court communications chief in November.
Saudi authorities did not respond to CNN's request for comment on Walid al-Hathloul's allegations. Attempts to reach Qahtani through the Saudi government were unsuccessful.
Riyadh previously denied allegations of torture in a statement to CNN following an initial Human Rights Watch report alleging the abuse in November.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's judiciary system does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture. Anyone, whether male or female, being investigated is going through the standard judiciary process led by the public prosecution while being held for questioning, which does not in any way rely on torture, either physical, sexual, or psychological," a Saudi official told CNN in November.