Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul referred case to terrorist court

Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights campaigners, was unstoppably shaken and spoke in an uncharacteristically faint voice during a rare court appearance this week, a family member told NBC News on Thursday.

Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul from Berlin, told NBC News by phone that the siblings ’parents may have witnessed the trial in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

During the hearing, Loujan, 31, was told his case would be referred to the country’s specialized criminal court for terrorist cases, Lina said. Her sister had her first appearance in court since March last year, she added.

Lynn Maalouf, London’s deputy regional director for Central and North Africa at Amnesty International, called the judicial relocation a “disturbing move”. The Special Criminal Court was “famous for serving severe prison sentences with long prison sentences,” he said in a statement.

Saudi authorities have not responded to NBC News’ comments. NBC News was unable to independently confirm details of Loujain’s appearance and health.

“Activism is considered a crime,” Lina said of the Saudi authorities. “It’s extremely stressful if you never know what your own government can do to you.”

According to Amnesty, diplomats from several states have been denied entry into court on the “pretext” of Covid-19 regulations.

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Loujain, who came to the fore when she supported women’s right to drive, has been on hunger strike for two weeks since Oct. 26, her sister said. There were dozens of other women in the campaign who were arrested in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women’s leadership.

Other dissidents, including cleric Salman al-Awda, who called on the country’s rulers to better respond to the population’s desire for reform, were also brought to justice in the country’s counterterrorism court.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said at least three imprisoned women’s rights activists, including Louajan, were held in confinement and subjected to abuses, including electric shock, flogging and sexual violence. Saudi Arabia has firmly denied the allegations.

Officials did not disclose specific allegations against Loujain, but last year, according to the Saudi state news agency, SPA, Hathloult and other women in custody are accused of trying to undermine security, stability and national unity.

Amnesty International protesters are protesting on International Women’s Day 2019 to call on the Saudi authorities to release imprisoned women’s rights activists Loujain al-Hathloult, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the French embassy in Paris.Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir in an interview with the BBC, he said the country has an independent judiciary and “does not allow people to give lectures to us”.

“Loujain al-Hathloult was detained for national security issues, dealing with support for foreign organizations, hostile organizations with Saudi Arabia – it has nothing to do with supporting women’s leadership rights,” Al-Jubeir said.

“The courts will decide what will be their fate,” he added.

The Gulf Kingdom is likely to take greater control of the human rights situation following the defeat of President Donald Trump, who has maintained close ties with the de facto Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as the MBS.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to “re-evaluate” relations between the U.S. and oil-rich nations and has called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” because of its human rights record, which is a stronger line.

Riyadh under the Crown Prince has implemented bold social reforms, including a guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission from a male relative to travel and work outside the home. It also relaxed the social rules of cinemas and curbed the power of the religious police.

But the reforms were accompanied by the suppression of political differences and the protracted war in neighboring Yemen, which contributed to a serious humanitarian crisis.

The 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for the Saudi Washington Post, who was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, terrified many around the world and worsened the country’s international position.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.