Freedom Now congratulates Loujain Alhathloul as the 2020 recipient of the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Alhathloul is the eighth individual to receive the Council of Europe’s Prize and the first from Saudi Arabia.
“We are grateful that in such a tumultuous year the Council of Europe has recognized Loujain Alhathloul for her indomitable spirit and commitment to gender equality,” said Freedom Now’s Executive Director Maran Turner. “We strongly urge Council of Europe members and other states to use this opportunity to call for the lifting of the unlawful travel ban imposed on Loujain. King Salman bin Abdulaziz should embrace the Council of Europe’s decision, have pride in its selection, and allow Loujain to travel freely in pursuit of her work to advocate for peaceful reform.”
The Václav Havel Human Rights Prize is awarded each year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in partnership with the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation, to recognize outstanding civil society action in the defense of human rights in Europe and beyond. This year the selection panel chose as its three nominees all women working to promote women’s rights or gender equality. In addition to Loujain, Congolese human rights activist Julienne Lusenge and the Buddhist nuns of the Drukpa Order were selected as shortlisted candidates.
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 imprisoned her. 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.
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 order to lift the driving ban on women; a policy change welcomed by many of the activists.
Alhathloul was kept incommunicado for the first 35 days of her detention 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.
Alhathloul’s trial was subjected to repeated delays. It was suspended in May 2020 and did not resume until November, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saudi government also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to stop Alhathloul’s communication with her family between April and August 2020. When her parents were finally allowed to visit after months of incommunicado detention, Alhathloul disclosed she staged a six-day hunger strike to compel the authorities to reinstate phone calls and visits. However, authorities again denied Alhathloul access to her family between September 9 and October 26. In response, Alhathloul staged a two-week hunger strike to protest this treatment, which greatly impacted her health.
On February 10, 2021, after more than 1,000 days of imprisonment, Loujain was conditionally released. Two months earlier, the Specialized Criminal Court, which deals with terrorism-related crimes, sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison, with a partial suspension of two years and 10 months, on charges related to her human rights advocacy. Despite her release, she remains subject to three years of probation and a five-year travel ban imposed by the court.
In June 2020, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Alhathloul to be released in response 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.”