Jailed Saudi activist’s trial transferred to terrorism court: family
Saudi authorities have transferred the trial of jailed activist Loujain al-Hathloul to an anti-terrorism court, her family said Wednesday, raising the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence despite international pressure for her release.
Hathloul, 31, was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other women activists just weeks before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers, a reform they had long campaigned for.
Hathloul, who recently went on a two-week hunger strike in prison, was visibly “weak” and “shaking uncontrollably” when she appeared at Riyadh’s criminal court, where she has been tried since March 2019 in closed-door sessions, her sister Lina Hathloul said.
The judge announced that his court lacked jurisdiction and transfered Hathloul’s case to the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), or the anti-terrorism court, Lina said.
“How is it possible for the judge to realise the court lacks jurisdiction after dealing with the case for 1 year and 8 months?” Lina wrote on Twitter.
“Nobody can be fooled anymore. This is MBS’s Saudi Arabia’s definition of a fair trial and of an independent court,” she added, using a widely used acronym for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler.
There was no immediate comment on the development from authorities in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that faces growing international criticism for its human rights record.
The development, just days after Riyadh hosted the G20 summit, illustrates how Saudi Arabia is doubling down on dissent even as US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration could intensify scrutiny of its human rights failings.
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 Prince Mohammed.
Aside from a host of international campaigners and celebrities, United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had demanded the “immediate and unconditional release” of Hathloul ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
Two Western diplomats told AFP they were denied entry to the courthouse for the hearing under the pretext of coronavirus restrictions.
– ‘Far from broken’ –
Despite her frail health, Hathloul read out her four-page defence to the judge in Wednesday’s hearing, her other sister Alia al-Hathloul said on Twitter.
Hathloul’s siblings are based outside the kingdom, but some of her other family members were said to be present in court.
The Specialised Criminal Court was established in 2008 to handle terrorism-related cases, but has been widely used to try political dissidents and human rights activists.
In a report earlier this year, Amnesty International said the secretive court was being used to silence critical voices under the cover of fighting terrorism.
“Saudi authorities could have decided to end the two-year nightmare for brave human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloud,” Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf said in a separate statement on Wednesday.
“Instead, in a disturbing move, they transferred her case to… an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials.”
While some detained women activists have been provisionally released, Hathloul and others remain imprisoned on what rights groups describe as opaque charges that include aiding enemies of the state as well as contacting foreign media, diplomats and activist groups.
The pro-government Saudi media has branded Hathloul and others as “traitors”, and her family alleges she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention.
Saudi authorities vigorously deny the charges.
The detention of women activists has cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.
Hathloul began a hunger strike in prison on October 26 to demand regular contact with her family, but felt compelled to end it two weeks later, her siblings said.
“She was being woken up by the guards every two hours, day and night, as a brutal tactic to break her,” Amnesty said on Twitter, citing the activist’s family.
“Yet, she is far from broken.”