A Saudi court on Monday sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison, local media reported, in a trial that has drawn international condemnation and as Riyadh faces new US scrutiny, reported Reuters.
Hathloul, 31, has been held since 2018 following her arrest along with at least a dozen other women’s rights activist.
The verdict, reported by Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat newspapers, poses an early challenge to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who has described Riyadh as a “pariah” for its human rights record.
Hathloul was charged with seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national security, local media said. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, or time served since Hathloul was arrested on May 15, 2018, the newspapers said.
United Nations human rights experts have called the charges against her spurious, and along with leading rights groups and lawmakers in the United States and Europe have called for her release.
The detentions of women activitsts occured shortly before and after the kingdom lifted a ban on women driving, which many activists had long championed, as part of reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that were also accompanied by a crackdown on dissent and an anti-corruption purge.
Hathloul’s sentencing came just nearly three weeks after a Riyadh court jailed U.S.-Saudi physician Walid al-Fitaihi for six years, despite U.S. pressure to release him, in a case rights groups have called politically motivated.
UN Committee urges release of al-Hathloul
The worsening health of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, who has been on hunger strike since 26 October to protest against her prolonged detention, is deeply alarming, the UN women’s rights committee said today. The Committee called for the immediate release of Al-Hathloul and all other women human rights defenders in detention.
“The Committee is seriously concerned by recent information concerning the conditions of Ms. Al-Hathloul’s prolonged detention, including reports that she is not allowed regular contact with her family,” the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said.
Al-Hathloul was involved in promoting women’s rights in her country, including through campaigns to allow women to drive and to end male guardianship laws. She met the Committee in February 2018 to share her observations on the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Three months after the meeting, she was arrested and has since been detained on national security grounds, partly based on her engagement with the Committee, according to the charges against her.
Saudi Arabia assured the Committee in February this year that Al-Hathloul’s trial would take place in March. However, the hearing has been postponed several times since then.
The Committee urged the Saudi authorities to protect Al-Hathloul’s rights to life, health, and liberty and security of person at all times. “Human rights defenders have the right to communication with the UN, and they should do so free from fear or retribution of any sort,” the experts said.
Al-Hathloul and other women human rights defenders are regarded as key partners by the Committee, “Women human rights defenders bring voices from the ground and invaluable insights,” CEDAW stressed.
Ahead of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November, the Committee appealed to His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to use his royal prerogative powers to ensure the release of Loujain Al-Hathloul from detention.
The Committee also paid tribute to all other women human rights defenders around the world who face reprisals because of their work to defend women’s human rights and advocate for gender equality and non-discrimination.
The Full text of the UN Committee’s statement:
Call by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to release all detained women human rights defenders, including Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, in the wake of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November 2020
As International Women Human Rights Defenders Day on 29 November 2020 is approaching, we, independent experts of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the Committee), pay tribute to the women human rights defenders who have engaged with the Committee to defend women’s human rights and advocate for gender equality and non-discrimination in every sphere of society, some of whom have been exposed to different forms of reprisals.
Human rights defenders have the right to free and unhindered access to and communication with the UN, and they should do so free from fear or retribution of any sort. Women human rights defenders bring voices from the ground and invaluable insights to the Committee, and they are key partners in the dissemination, implementation and follow up of its recommendations.
In this context, the Committee is concerned about the situation of women human rights defenders who face reprisals in many parts of the world. Of particular concern to the Committee is the case of Saudi women’s rights activist Ms. Loujain Al-Hathloul, who had been engaged for several years in promoting women’s rights in her country, including in the movements to allow women to drive and to claim freedom of movement. She appeared before the Committee in February 2018 in the context of the consideration of the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Saudi Arabia by the Committee. The Committee valued her input alongside with the information provided by other civil society organizations.
On 15 May 2018, Ms. Al-Hathloul was arrested and has since been detained on national security grounds, reportedly in circumstances that amount to arbitrary arrest and detention. According to the charges, these were based, in part, on Ms. Al-Hathloul’s engagement with the Committee.
In February 2020, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia assured the Committee that Ms. Al-Hathloul’s trial hearing would take place in March 2020. However, it has been postponed several times since then. In this regard, the Committee recalls its ‘Statement on the occasion of the second anniversary of the participation of detained Saudi women human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul in the Committee’s review of Saudi Arabia’, issued on 27 February 2020, calling on Saudi Arabia “to ensure her right to a fair trial without further delay, with full respect for the procedural guarantees established by international human rights law, and free from gender bias”.
The Committee is alarmed by the recent information concerning the conditions of Ms. Al-Hathloul’s prolonged detention, which have prompted her to start a hunger strike. Unlike other detainees, and contrary to Rules 26 and 42 of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bankok Rules; General Assembly resolution 65/229 of 21 December 2010), Ms. Al-Hathloul is not allowed to have regular contact with her family nor to exercise activities, according to reports received.
We, the Committee experts, are gravely concerned about Ms. Al-Hathloul’s physical and mental health and well-being particularly in light of her hunger strike. We urge the Saudi authorities to protect her rights to life, health, and liberty and security of person at all times, while fully respecting her freedoms of conscience and expression, including by going on hunger strike.
In the wake of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day 2020, the Committee appeals to His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to use his royal prerogative powers to ensure the release of Ms. Loujain Al-Hathloul from detention, which has been unduly prolonged.