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Saudi women's rights activist sent to terrorism court

November 27, 2020

A Saudi criminal court has transferred the case of the imprisoned women's rights fighter to a special court with a "notorious" reputation. Al-Hathloul's family told DW she has already faced abuse in prison.

Loujain al-Hathloul
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Facebook/Loujain al-Hathloul

"My family has not heard from my sister since she was taken back to prison," Lina al-Hathloul said of her sibling, Loujain al-Hathloul. The prominent Saudi Arabian women's rights activist has been imprisoned for over two years. On Wednesday, her case was transferred from a criminal court to a special anti-terrorism court for "lack of jurisdiction," her family said.

"Now she is facing her trial at a far more secretive court," her sister explained to DW on Friday.

Lina and Loujain al-Hathloul
Sisters Lina (l) and Loujain (r) in 2017, before Loujain was arrested for drivingImage: privat

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, called the transfer "a disturbing move."

"They transferred her case to the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials. This is yet another sign that Saudi Arabia's claims of reform on human rights are a farce," Maalouf told DW.

Arrested while driving

Loujain Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018, along with about a dozen other female activists, while driving a car — only weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on female drivers. The women were subsequently accused of "suspicious contact with foreign parties," providing financial support to "hostile elements abroad" and recruiting government workers, according to the Saudi authorities.

While some of the detainees have been provisionally released, Al-Hathloul has remained imprisoned since her arrest. She has repeatedly told her family that she has been subjected to sexual harassment, electric shocks and waterboarding.

During the hearing on Wednesday, which al-Hathloul's parents attended, the activist raised these experiences in court. The judge consequently said that an investigation would be opened.

"This came as a massive surprise," Lina said, while voicing doubts as to how credible it was, given that "at court, any torture was denied."

The Saudi ambassador to Germany did not reply to a DW request for comment.

A man holds up a sign in front of the Saudi Embassy in Paris demanding the release of female activists detained by Saudi Arabia
On International Women's Day in 2019, protesters in France demanded Saudi Arabia release Loujain al-Hathloul, along with other detained activistsImage: Reuters/File Photo/B. Tessier

Loujain al-Hathloul is 'unbroken'

When the 31-year-old appeared at court on Wednesday, she looked very fragile and hardly able to concentrate; she wasn't even able to hold a piece of paper in her hands without shaking, Lina said, recounting her parents' description of their daughter. "They were shocked," she said, "yet Loujain is unbroken."

In November, al-Hathloul went on a hunger strike to protest her conditions in prison. However, she broke the strike after two weeks.

"The prison guards woke her up every two hours under the pretense to check on her, but I think they did it to break her," Lina said. On the day of the hearing, Loujain told her parents that she broke the hunger strike when the nightmares and memories of tortures became too much.

Lina, as well as her parents, who serve as legal representatives for Loujain, are hoping that the transfer to the new court will reveal a lack of evidence against Loujain.

Lina is currently based in Berlin and calls her parents on a regular basis. "But we can't be open in our conversations, for obvious reasons," she explained.

Lina al-Hathloul
Lina al-Hathloul lives in Berlin and cannot speak entirely freely with her parents in Saudi Arabia about her sisterImage: privat

Saudi Arabia: A record of rights' abuses

Al-Hathloul's case has attracted attention around the world, including from some well-known celebrities.

The German Foreign Ministry told DW it was following the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, including al-Hathloul's case, with concern.

"In the light of the latest news, we will again make our position clear to the Government of Saudi Arabia and express our concern that the trial of al-Hathloul has been referred to the Specialized Criminal Court. We will also continue our efforts to ensure the possibility of trial monitoring," a ministry spokesperson told DW in a statement. 

German-Saudi relations have been strained by the kingdom's human rights abuses. The 2018 murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul led to Germany to impose an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. This is set to expire on December 31, 2020. The German government has not yet decided whether to extend the ban.

Saudi Human Rights

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa