Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul appeared before a special “terrorism court” in Riyadh on Thursday, her family said, on charges United Nations human rights experts called “spurious” as they called for her immediate release.
Al-Hathloul has been held since 2018 after being arrested along with at least a dozen other women’s rights activists.
Saudi officials have said the arrests were made on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.
“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,” said Elizabeth Broderick, chair of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, in a statement.
Hathloul was being tried “for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” she added.
“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,” she said.
Hathloul, now 31, had testified before the same UN watchdog panel in 2018. After reviewing the kingdom’s record, the panel called on it to end discriminatory practices against women, including its pervasive system of male guardianship, and to give them full access to justice.
Independent UN investigators on torture, the defence of human rights, protecting human rights while countering terrorism, and freedom of assembly also co-signed Thursday’s statement.
On the occasion of Human Rights Day, human rights group Amnesty International in a tweet said the Saudi government must release Hathloul “immediately and unconditionally today”.
On #HumanRightsDay #Saudi activist @LoujainHathloul stands her first trial at the "terrorism court" with less than 24-hrs notice.@KingSalman, Loujain must be released immediately & unconditionally today. Nothing less.#FreeLoujain #UnmuteSaudiVoices #16Days #StandUp4HumanRights pic.twitter.com/g00P9ZCo9s
— Amnesty Gulf (@amnestygulf) December 9, 2020
Rights organisations say some of the women, including Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.
Saudi officials have denied torture allegations.
The detention of female activists has cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, which has also faced intense global criticism over the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.