Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading Saudi women’s rights activist who has been imprisoned for over 900 days will be tried by a special court established to oversee terrorism cases, her family said on Wednesday.
The move was condemned by human rights campaigners as a heavy-handed attempt to muzzle dissent and meant further delays in her trial. It also represents an escalation of the state’s case against her.
Hathloul, who has become the face of women’s activism in Saudi Arabia since being arrested in 2018, is on hunger strike and “looked weak in court”, said Linaal-Hathloul, her sister.
“Her body was shaking uncontrollably and her voice was faint and shaky,” her sister added.
She appeared with three other women who were also arrested in 2018, shortly before the government dropped its longstanding ban on women driving.
The court appearance came just after Saudi Arabia wrapped up its role as virtual host of this year’s G20 summit, which had women’s empowerment as one of its themes.
The judge’s decision to hand over her case to the “specialised criminal court” that normally handles terrorism and national security cases was met with concern by Amnesty International.
“We’re very concerned about the use of this court, because it is supposed to look into cases of terrorism. It is not the place to try peaceful human rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul,” said Hashem Hashem, regional campaigner for Amnesty International.
“We are concerned that this transfer is to further muzzle peaceful and critical voices and to punish activists such as Loujain for demanding change and reform.”
The charges against Hathloul appear almost entirely related to her campaigning. Offences include speaking to journalists, diplomats and international activist groups, sources who saw the charge sheets, which have not been made public, have told campaign group Human Rights Watch.
Her family and rights groups say she has been tortured in jail, and recently she has been held incommunicado for long periods.
She went on hunger strike in late October in protest, but after two weeks prison guards started waking her up every two hours which left her “psychologically exhausted” and she halted the strike, said her sister.
Hathloul’s trial has been delayed before, and Lina said the family is frustrated by constant postponements, pointing out that the presiding judge had been dealing with the case for a year and eight months before announcing he did not have jurisdiction.
“We are disappointed but not surprised,” Lina told the Guardian. “Every decision from the beginning has been made impulsively and illegally. I know they are trying to break her but we won’t ever give up on her.”
Three other female activists arrested around the same time as Ms. al-Hathloul also appeared in court on Wednesday. They were Nouf Abdelaziz, Nassima Al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, who received the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2012.
It was not clear what happened in the other women’s cases. (Source: The Guardian)