UN experts alarmed by Loujain Al-Hathloul trial, call for immediate release

UN human rights experts* expressed alarm at the commencement of proceedings against woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul in a Saudi Specialised Criminal Court, and called for her immediate release from jail and for the “spurious” charges against her to be dropped.

Ms. Al-Hathloul had been instrumental in the movement to allow women to drive, and the push to end male guardianship laws. She was detained in May 2018 on national security grounds.

“We are extremely alarmed to hear that Ms Al-Hathloul, who has been in detention for more than two years on spurious charges, is now being tried by a Specialized Terrorism Court for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” said Elizabeth Broderick, the Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls.

“We call once again on Saudi Arabia to immediately release Ms. Al-Hathloul, a woman human rights defender who has greatly contributed to advancing women’s rights in a country where gender discrimination and stereotyping are deeply entrenched in the fabric of society.”

Ms. Al-Hathloul was accused of breaching article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law, which punishes the production and transmission of material deemed to impinge on public order, religious values, public morals and private life. The authorities justified the charges based on allegations that Ms. Al-Hathloul along with other defenders “communicated with people and entities hostile to the King”, “cooperated with journalists and media institutions hostile to the King”, “provided financial support to foreign adversaries” and “recruited persons for information detrimental to the security of the Kingdom”.

Ms. Al-Hathloul met the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in February 2018 to share her observations on the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

“The government of Saudi Arabia has a primary responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms and cannot turn a blind eye to the arbitrary detention and allegation of torture of a woman whose only reason for imprisonment was to advance women’s rights,” said Broderick.

Ms. Al-Hathloul has not been allowed regular contact with her family during her detention. Her trials have been frequently cancelled and rescheduled 24 hours before the actual hearings, allowing her little time to prepare her defence.  At the end of October 2020, she started a hunger strike to protest against her conditions of detention. In mid-November, she interrupted the hunger strike following continued pressure from the authorities, who reportedly kept waking her every two hours to exhaust her psychologically.

The Working Group said that passing recent amendments to reform discriminatory legislation while violating the rights of women human rights defenders is shocking and deceptive. “It is not enough to pass laws when fundamental human rights are regularly breached in practice,” said Broderick of the Working Group.

“We urge the Government to end Ms. Al-Hathloul’s detention, as well as the detention of all the other women human rights defenders, and to conduct an impartial and independent investigation into the allegations of torture while in prison. Defending human rights can never be considered a threat to national security,” she said.

UN human rights experts have raised their concerns with the Saudi Government over the crackdown on women human rights defenders on a number of occasions**.

This news release has been endorsed by the following UN experts: Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders; Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;  Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.