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By: Florence Massena
Women’s rights activist, social media figure and now political prisoner: Loujain al-Hathloul, at only 31, represents a lot of what Saudi Arabia does to its human rights defenders. Already detained since 2018, she has been condemned on December 28 to more than five years of jail, which she will appeal.
Loujain al-Hathloul has been fighting all her young years for women’s rights, and is considered as one of the most prominent and outspoken women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, using social media to spread her thoughts and social comments.
Already in 2013, she was getting filmed driving in a 2013 women’s rights campaign against the driving ban.
A year after, she was detained for 73 days for attempting to drive from the UAE into Saudi Arabia. She was also used to film herself without covering her hair, which is not considered mandatory anymore but is still a sensitive topic in the Kingdom.
In 2015, she touched politics by declaring herself a candidate for elections as it was the first year women could vote, though her name was never added to the ballot.
But it’s in 2018 that her actions put her on a “people to silence” list, as she and other human rights activists were arrested in May on charges including “contacts with organizations hostile to Saudi Arabia”. At that time, women’s rights activist Eman al-Nafjan was also imprisoned, although she didn’t share her fate and got temporarily released from jail in March 2019. In December 2020, the state prosecutor’s office required the maximal sentence, 20 years, all that in front of the Kingdom’s terrorism court, which was originally created in 2008 to judge terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Her case was transferred earlier in November 2020 to the criminal court on charges including “destabilizing national security” and “working with foreign entities against the state”. On her first trial session on March 13, 2019, she had been charged with “promoting women’s rights”, “calling for the end of the male guardianship system”, and “contacting international organizations, foreign media, and other activists”, notably contacts with the United Nations and the international organization Amnesty International. On her last trial, she ended up being sentenced to five years and eight months in prison.
Saudi Arabia has been promoting an apparent loosening up of restrictions towards women since 2018, such as lifting the driving ban, protecting them from employment discrimination, enabling to register births and deaths, to obtain family records, to make medical decisions about their own body, related to birth and pregnancy, and to travel abroad without being accompanied by a guardian. But as Adam Coogle, deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Fanack, “A lot of the reforms are undermined by the fact that the women’s rights activists who pushed for them are either in jail, in exile, or silenced”.
Worst, her family has said that al-Hathloul has been “sexually assaulted, tortured with beatings and electric shocks, and held incommunicado for long periods of time”. Details of her case and torture can be found on the website her family set up to advocate her situation. It is said there that Saud al-Qahtani, a top royal adviser, was present several times when the activist was tortured, sometimes laughing at her, sometimes threatening to rape and kill her and throw her body into the sewage system.
“A lot can be said about Loujain al-Hathloul, but one important fact is that she faced the terrorism court”, Khalid Ibrahim, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, told Fanack. “Other human rights defenders too. And for what? She is a brave activist, she does it peacefully, she only wants women to drive a car, to be able to study, to have a future. It is what everyone needs really.” Ibrahim said he is confident she will appeal, and praised her family, who has constantly fought for her and advocated internationally to get attention and support. “You know, she refuses to sign any declaration stating that she would stop her activism and talking about her torture”, Ibrahim said. “I think that’s why she’s so targeted. She’s very brave, really.”
Many organizations, individuals and public administrations from around the world have asked for her immediate release for Saudi Arabia to stop arbitrary imprisonment and trial of human rights defenders. On November 24, 2020, Amnesty International published a statement saying: “The only just outcome for this trial would be the immediate and unconditional release of Loujain al-Hathloul. She is not a criminal – she is a human rights defender who is being punished simply for daring to advocate for change.”
For that reason Loujain al-Hathloul is: a brave young woman who believes in change and rights to all. Which is perceived by the authorities of Saudi Arabia as an act of terrorism.