Rights groups condemn move of trial of Saudi woman activist to ‘terrorism court’

Family highlights Loujain al-Hathloul’s case in hope of securing better conditions for activist

Human rights groups have condemned the transfer of the trial of a high-profile Saudi woman activist from a civil court to the kingdom’s terrorism court and called for her prompt release.

"Transferring Loujain al-Hathloul's case to the 'Terrorism Court' doesn't make her a terrorist," Amnesty International tweeted. Instead, Amnesty said, it exposes "the brutality and hypocrisy of [the] Saudi authorities that instrumentalise 'women empowerment' to whitewash their image, while prosecuting women activists under sham charges."

The shift of venue put paid to a suggestion to the Guardian by Saudi ambassador to Britain Khaled bin Bandar that Ms Hathloul might be released in connection with last weekend's G20 summit hosted by Riyadh.

There has been increasing international pressure on Riyadh to free Ms Hathloul and other prisoners of conscience as a protracted imprisonment sullies the image of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, who portrays himself as a reformist.


London-based Saudi rights group ALQST’s acting director Safa a-Ahmad said: “With the G20 summit over, [the Saudi authorities] seemingly think that their repression can go unnoticed.”

Amnesty said that the special criminal court, established in 2008 to deal with terrorism cases, has been used to prosecute dissidents and human rights activists. Other rights groups say it has little regard for international legal norms.

A leading figure in campaigns for women’s right to drive and freedom from male guardianship, Ms Hathloul (31) was seized by Saudi agents and deported from the Emirates to Riyadh in March 2018, detained briefly, and banned from travel. She and a dozen other women were arrested that May, weeks before women were allowed to drive.

Ms Hathloul was charged with "attempting to destabilise the kingdom" by sharing information with foreign diplomats, journalists and rights organisations. The crown prince – who is accused of ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 – told Bloomberg in 2018 that he had video evidence showing Ms Hathloul engaged in espionage.

Ms Hathloul's husband, Farhan Al-Butairi, was forcefully repatriated from Jordan, briefly detained, and compelled to divorce her.

According to Amnesty and ALQST, she and other women detainees have been beaten, given electric shocks and sexually harassed. Her trial opened in March 2019 but was adjourned until this week, when she appeared ill and weak due to a hunger strike.

The family initially hesitated to publicise Ms Hathloul’s situation, but when news leaked of her mistreatment her sisters who live abroad spoke out.

In response to her transfer to the terrorism court, sister Lina told the BBC: “When we were silent and the world didn’t know about her, she was being tortured. [When] we don’t make noise, she’s put in solitary confinement. So, I think the only thing that works with Loujain’s case and the other activists’ case is outside pressure.”

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times