On 13 March 2019 a group of Saudi women’s rights activists stood trial for the first time since their arrest in May 2018. Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi are four of 10 women that appeared at the Criminal Court in Saudi’s capital city, Riyadh. Court president Ibrahim Al-Sayari spoke to the world’s press outside the court, as reporters and diplomats were not authorised to enter the court whilst in session.
The women were among more than a dozen prominent activists, including several men, arrested in the weeks before a ban on women driving cars in the Kingdom was lifted last June. A few were previously released without trial. According to family members and human rights groups, the women have been denied access to lawyers.
According to state-aligned media, the women on trial were accused of violating Royal Decree 44 (a), Under Royal Decree 44, dissidents can face terrorism charges punishable by between three and 20 years’ imprisonment. Royal Decree 44 was issued on 3 February 2014 by King Abdullah. It has been previously invoked to detain human rights defenders and criminalises,
“participating in hostilities outside the kingdom”
When the decree was released in 2014, Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said,
“Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism,”
At the time of the arrests in 2018, the public prosecutor said that five men and four women had been detained on suspicion of ‘harming Saudi interests’ and ‘offering support to hostile elements abroad’. After the arrests, some local media outlets labelled the accused as traitors and “agents of embassies.” Arab News criticised such reporting as unfair and unprofessional, and argued that the accused should be treated as innocent unless proved guilty.
Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Saada, Shadan al-Onezi, Amal al-Harbi and Mohammed al-Rabia are among the other detainees held, some in solitary confinement, others such as Loujain al-Hathloul have been subjected to torture including: electric shocks, flogging, and assault. To date Saudi officials have denied these allegations.
Loujain Hathloul is one of the most prominent of the detained group and now concern is growing over her welfare. In March 2018, Loujain was arrested and detained for 73 days after she attempted to drive from Abu Dhabi to Saudi, crossing the border in an attempt to dey the female driving ban in Saudi Arabia. In 2016 she then signed a petition along with 14,000 others asking King Salman to end the male guardianship system. Loujain was detained again in 2017, and finally in May 2018 since when she has been held along with
Another one of the human rights defenders on trial is Aziza al-Yosef. Aziza is a retired professor of computer science, a grandmother and a leading Saudi activist. She said,
“We need to be optimistic in the darkest times…No matter how much others try to put us down and tell us there is no hope … there should be optimism. There should be hope. Without hope,” she concludes, “there won’t be change.”
Earlier this month thirty-six countries including all countries in the European Union, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Montenegro, signed an open letter criticising Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The letter was read on 7 March at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and is the first collective reproach of the kingdom.
Canada has also recently renewed calls to pull put of Saudi arms deals in light of the detained women and their charges.