Saudi Arabia will put women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul on trial on Wednesday, more than 900 days after she was detained, and just after Saudi Arabia wrapped up hosting duties on a virtual G20 summit, her family have been told.
Hathloul is on hunger strike and has been held incommunicado for nearly a month. A UN women’s rights committee recently expressed alarm about her failing health. Her sister Lina al-Hathloul fears she is being pressured into giving false confessions which could be used against her in court.
“I am extremely worried and anxious about this trial. Everything about her case is illegal and unjust,” Lina told the Guardian, pointing out that the family had only been given one day’s notice of the court date.
“I hope tomorrow will be the end of this nightmare,” she added. Previous planned court appearances have been cancelled at the last minute.
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Hathloul was arrested with nine other women’s rights advocates in May 2018, months before women were finally granted the right to drive. Her family, including her sister, claim she has been tortured. At least five of those arrested remain in jail.
Ahead of the G20 summit – which had women’s empowerment as one of its themes – Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK had said the country was considering “clemency” for jailed female activists, even though most have not been found guilty of any crime or even had a day in court.
Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said a debate was under way in the foreign ministry about whether their continued detention was causing Saudi Arabia so much political damage that it was not worthwhile. However, the meeting came and went without any of them being released.
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been close allies, their bond helping blunt international scrutiny of the country’s handling of dissent and Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention in Yemen.
The looming transfer of pesidential power to Joe Biden will increase pressure on Riyadh over its human rights record. Violations range from the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate by a squad of state killers, to detentions of women’s rights campaigners and death sentences for juvenile offenders.
Biden has promised to review US-Saudi relations, including Washington’s support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen.
Business ties will continue, however. US dependence on Saudi oil has fallen markedly as a result of domestic shale gas production, but the kingdom’s political stability is still a key US concern. The Saudi government sent a message of congratulations to Joe Biden on Sunday.