Saudi Arabia: UN Declares Detention of Women’s Rights Activist Loujain Alhathloul a Violation of International Law


Washington, D.C. – The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finds the Government of Saudi Arabia in violation of international human rights law and calls for the immediate release of women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul. Alhathloul has been detained since May 2018 for her role in protesting the ban on women drivers. Responding to a legal petition filed by Freedom Now, the UN concluded that “the criminal charges for which she has been indicted and tried clearly concern her internationally renowned public campaign.”

The Working Group, after examining the facts of the case, determined that Alhathloul’s arrest and trial was politically motivated on the basis of her peaceful advocacy for women’s rights, in violation of her rights to freedom of expression, association, and right to political participation. It also found that the proceedings against her did not meet international fair-trial standards. The Working Group declared that “in its 29-year history, [it] has found Saudi Arabia in violation of their international human rights obligations in at least 60 cases. . .. The Working Group recalls that under certain circumstances, widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of the rules of international law may constitute crimes against humanity.”

“Loujain Alhathloul has endured wrongful imprisonment, torture, and inhumane treatment for more than two years,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “The Saudi government has unjustly persecuted one of its most dedicated citizens, who seeks a more open and tolerant country. Her courageous activism should be celebrated, not punished. We call on Saudi Arabia to comply with the UN’s decision and release Loujain and all imprisoned women’s rights activists immediately.”

Loujain Alhathloul has campaigned for gender equality in Saudi Arabia since 2013. She worked tirelessly to eliminate the government’s ban on female drivers, and has spoken out against the male guardianship system and domestic violence. She has advanced this cause alongside other activists by raising global awareness, supporting international human rights monitoring, and organizing peaceful protest activities.

In response to her outspoken calls for reform, the Saudi government has sought to silence Alhathloul. She was arrested in December 2014 for attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia and again in June 2017 on unspecified charges. In March 2018, she was forcibly removed from the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living, to Saudi Arabia and detained for several days. The opinion by the Working Group also finds that the United Arab Emirates violated Alhathloul’s rights by facilitating this removal, stating “the Government of the United Arab Emirates cannot escape responsibility for its part in facilitating Ms. Alhathloul’s persecution for her legitimate exercise of rights and freedoms.”

On May 15, 2018, armed state security officers raided Alhathloul’s home in Riyadh and arrested her without a warrant. Over the next three days, the Saudi government arrested at least a dozen women’s rights activists. Ironically, the crackdown coincided with the government’s decision to lift the driving ban on women; a decision welcomed by many of the activists.

Alhathloul was kept incommunicado for the first 35 days, during which she was tortured by Saudi officials, who whipped, beat, electrocuted, and sexually harassed her. Alhathloul’s parents have stated that her “thighs were blackened by bruises” when they were finally allowed to visit her in December 2018, and that she “was shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to walk or sit normally.” In August 2019, Saudi State Security officials offered to release Alhathloul if she recorded a video denying that she had been tortured. She refused this offer.

On March 13, 2019, an official indictment against Alhathloul was issued, which has not been made public, and includes 12 separate charges related to Alhathloul’s activism. Her trial is ongoing, and has most recently been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In recent weeks, prison authorities have intermittently suspended Alhathloul’s weekly telephone calls with her family. Although communication has been restored, there are urgent concerns regarding the security and wellbeing of her current detention.

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