Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in the world as the country and regularly detains and executes dozens of pro-democracy people considered as “enemies of the kingdom”. The Saudi monarchy operates with no functional judiciary system in place, still treats women as inferior to men from the moment they are born and is the only country that carries out beheadings as a form of capital punishment. Saudi Arabia follows Sharia law, many aspects of which violate modern human rights, and strongly oppresses modern autonomy concepts such as religious freedom and freedom of speech; practicing any religion besides Islam is prohibited and criticism of the kingdom is punished with imprisonment, torture and sometimes death. Bloggers and journalists have been detained for merely suggesting a discussion about human rights in Saudi Arabia and their punishment have been as severe as 1000 lashes, 10 years in prison and a quarter of a million dollar fine.
Loujain Al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, is one of many faces depicting the cruel corruption and hypocrisy in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has long been hailed as the reformer of the conservative sovereignty with his opening of cinemas, loosening gender segregation, curbing the powers of the religious police and allowing music to be played in public; overturning the ban on women’s right to drive and rescind many of the many longstanding restrictions rooted in the rigid interpretation of Islam, but he is far from the modern liberalizing crusader he pertains to be. A mere 3 weeks before the women’s driving ban was due to be lifted, a serious crackdown on female activists in Saudi Arabia spread like wildfire across the kingdom and prominent activists suddenly ‘disappeared’ or were taken into custody. Al-Hathloul was among the first to disappear into custody, along with Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, fellow advocates for human rights and reform. The crackdown cast an immediate shadow on the alleged modernizing reform PR agenda that bin Salman had been trying to push and sent a clear message to the world that women’s freedoms had not been changed in the Saudi kingdom; they had always been denied and they still were.
One cannot overlook the obvious hypocrisy of Crown Prince bin Salman in talking about reforms as he was actively targeting the very activists who have campaigned for the reformist laws. The arrests demonstrated a new and terrifying tactic in Saudi Arabia of the state using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent without providing the basic human right of a fair trial. Loujain al-Hathloul, the most prominent detained female activist and whose name frequently tops the list of the 100 most influential Arab women, is said to have suffered electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, and sexual harassment during detention.
The trial of Loujain al-Hathloul and 11 other female activists opened in a closed-door court hearing on Wednesday, March 13th and the third trial session took place 2 weeks ago, on April 3rd. From the time of their commencement, Saudi authorities have completely barred all western press from attending the trials to avoid external reprisal. Since the murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, the imprisonment of the women activists has drawn widespread criticism from members of the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament, and other Western capitals.
While the 11 women are being tried separately, they have been present at joint court appearances and, according to people with knowledge of the cases; they appear to be facing similar charges related to their activism and rights work. Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been detained since May 2018, was again denied bail at the conclusion of the third trial and her family tweeted that they were being bullied into silence about her arrest and claims of torture during the current trial.
A verdict is expected tomorrow at the fourth court hearing but so far it still remains unclear what charges the women face or what their future will hold. However one thing is for certain, Saudi Arabia has made no clear effort to curb its many human rights violations and it’s long overdue of western powers to look at whether political loyalty is worth the thousands of lives and human rights crisis it inflicts.