Saudi women's rights activist appears in anti-terror court

Female Saudi activist who campaigned to allow women drivers appears in court on ‘spurious’ terrorism charges

  • Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, appeared before Saudi anti-terror court on Thursday
  • Activist is charged with providing information to ‘unfreindly’ foreign states 
  • But family members say no evidence of that charge has been presented 
  • UN experts have called the charge ‘suprious’ and demanded she be released 

A jailed women’s rights activist has appeared before a Saudi anti-terror court charged with providing information to ‘unfriendly’ foreign states. 

Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, who campaigned for the right of Saudi women to drive, was being tried by Riyadh’s criminal court but her case was transferred to the anti-terror court last month. Her first appearance before the new court came on Thursday.

Campaigners say the court is notorious for issuing long prison sentences to activists who criticise the ruling regime under the guise of fighting terrorism.

UN experts have blasted the charges against Hathloul as ‘spurious’ while demanding her immediate release by Saudi authorities.

Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, made her first appearance before an anti-terror court Thursday on ‘spurious’ anti-terror charges

‘We are extremely alarmed to hear that Al-Hathloul, who has been in detention for more than two years on spurious charges, is now being tried by a specialised terrorism court,’ said Elizabeth Broderick, chair of the United Nations working group on discrimination against women and girls.

‘We call once again on Saudi Arabia to immediately release Al-Hathloul, a woman human rights defender who has greatly contributed to advancing women’s rights,’ she added in a statement.

Journalists are barred from attending the closed-door hearings, but members of Hathloul’s family have been allowed in and say that no evidence supporting the claims of terrorism have been put forward.

‘Loujain’s spirits are high, but her body is still weak,’ her sister Alia al-Hathloul said after a hearing in the Specialised Criminal Court.  

Hathloul has been in jail since May 2018 when she was arrested with about a dozen other women activists just weeks before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced he was lifting of the decades-long ban on female drivers.

While some detained women activists have been provisionally released, Hathloul and others remain imprisoned on what rights groups describe as opaque charges.

The pro-government Saudi media has branded them as ‘traitors’ and Hathloul’s family alleges she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention. 

Saudi authorities deny the charges.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, faces growing international criticism for its human rights record.

Hathloul had long campaigned for the right of Saudi women to drive, but was arrested in May 2018 just weeks before the Arab kingdom lifted the ban

But the kingdom appears to be doubling down on dissent, even as US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration could intensify scrutiny of its human rights failings.

On Tuesday, the Saudi terrorism court sentenced Fitaihi, 56, to six years in prison, on charges including getting US citizenship without permission from authorities and sympathising with an unnamed terrorist organisation, a source close to his family told AFP.

Saudi authorities have not publicly commented on his case, and it remains unclear why those charges constitute a crime.

‘Saudi authorities’ railroading of Fitaihi under broad charges shows that the government has no intention of loosening its clampdown on peaceful critics,’ said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Fitaihi, who founded a prominent hospital in Saudi Arabia, has been banned from travel since late 2017, along with other members of his family, the family source said, despite repeated calls by the US government for his release.

‘We are appalled that Walid Fitaihi has been sentenced to six years in prison by a Saudi court on politically motivated charges,’ four US Democratic senators, including Chris Murphy and Patrick Leahy, said in a statement on Thursday.

‘We have repeatedly called for the release of Dr. Fitaihi… Unfortunately, the Saudi government has ignored these bipartisan appeals, despite clear implications for the US-Saudi relationship.’

Biden has pledged to reassess Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, which largely escaped US censure under President Donald Trump, who has enjoyed a personal rapport with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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