A Saudi judge is sending a prominent women’s rights activist to a terrorist court

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Weak and uncontrollably shaky, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s top prisoners, appeared before a Saudi judge on Wednesday to find out that his case was being brought before a special court on terrorism and national affairs. security crimes, his family said.

Al-Hathloult (31) has been in custody since the spring of 2018 and is charged with crimes that include changing the kingdom’s political system, campaigning for women’s rights and communicating with foreign journalists, diplomats and human rights organizations.

Advocacy groups called his trial a hypocrite and accused the kingdom of using his courts to punish him and other activists for saying it.

A new turning point in Ms. al-Hathloul’s case comes as Saudi Arabia prepares to move from a close relationship with President Trump, who barely deals with the human rights record of U.S. Arab allies, to a precarious relationship with President-elect Joseph R. Biden. Ifj.

During the campaign, Mr. Biden vowed to re-evaluate U.S.-Saudi relations, take away the “dangerous blank check” he said the Trump government had offered, and impose penalties for human rights violations.

This harsh speech and intense lobbying by advocacy groups in the run-up to the 20-member group summit held by Saudi Arabia last weekend led to some speculation that the kingdom could release Ms. al-Hathloult as a benevolent gesture.

That didn’t happen, and the judge said on Wednesday that the criminal court that has been handling his case since March 2019 has no jurisdiction, so his case will be referred to the Criminal Court, his sister Lina al-Hathloul said. phone.

This court usually deals with terrorism and national security matters.

Law enforcement organizations and Ms. al-Hathloul’s family struggled on Wednesday to understand what the transfer meant.

“The court said there was a lack of jurisdiction, but the case was dealt with for one and eight months,” Lina al-Hathloul said. – It does not make sense.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comments on Ms al-Hathloul’s case. Last week, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir denied that his trial was linked to activism.

“Loujain al-Hathloult has been detained for national security issues, with support from foreign organizations, hostile organizations to Saudi Arabia,” al-Jubeir told the BBC. “It has nothing to do with supporting women’s right to drive.”

Three other female activists arrested at the same time as Ms. Al-Hathloul also appeared in court on Wednesday, Lina al-Hathloul said. They were Nouf Abdelaziz, Nassima Al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, who in 2012 received the U.S. State Department Award for International Courage.

It was not clear what happened to the other women.

Loujain al-Hathloul came to the fore in Saudi Arabia as an outspoken activist who criticized the kingdom’s restrictions on women and was detained on several occasions for violating a driving ban before being lifted in June 2018.

In March of the same year, he was arrested on a highway in the United Arab Emirates, forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia and briefly detained, he later told friends.

About when the driving ban was lifted, there were about a dozen activists – women and men – who were detained, apparently to prevent them from publicly seeking credit for the government’s decision.

Saudi newspapers published photos of some detainees with the inscription “traitor” and accused them of undermining the security of the kingdom.

Ms. al-Hathloul later told her relatives that she and two other women had been taken from prison to a nearby private institution and tortured.

When his trial began in March 2019, the formal indictment against him included attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations, as well as contacting foreign journalists, diplomats and human rights organizations by his brothers and others who saw the indictment.

After a few sessions, the trial stalled, resuming only earlier this year before the Saudi government introduced a closure to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

His relatives were last seen on October 26 when he began a hunger strike to protest against restrictions on family visits and other prison conditions. However, two weeks later, he resigned after prison leaders woke him up several times during the night, his family said.

Ms Al-Hathloul’s family was only informed on Tuesday that a new hearing would be held on Wednesday, they said.

“No matter what happens, it’s all a nuance,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa. “It’s not a fair legal system. Loujan must be released.