Saudi activist’s trial moved to specialized terrorism court following rare court appearance

The trial of Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul has been transferred from Saudi Arabia’s criminal court to a court specializing in terrorism charges, according to her family.

The move, which has been decried by human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is the latest development in the case, which has been back in the spotlight following the G20 conference in Riyadh. The referral is a setback for efforts to push for her swift release and means she will face charges related to terrorism and national security.

Alhathloul, 31, earned a degree from the University of British Columbia and lived in Vancouver for five years before being arrested in May 2018 along with nine other prominent women’s rights activists.

Since then she has been jailed, at times in solitary confinement, without facing formal charges, and earlier in 2020 was told her trial would be indefinitely postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rare, last-minute court appearance

Alhathloul’s sister, Lina Alhathloul, said the family got word of a rare and last-minute court appearance on Tuesday night. 

She said her family hoped the last-minute trial appearance could signal a shift in Saudi Arabia’s position toward her sister, given the recent spotlight on the case, and the upcoming transition to the Biden administration in the U.S., which has said it would put pressure on the kingdom’s human rights record.

But at the court appearance on Wednesday, Alhathloul was told that her case would be transferred to a specialized court because the prior court didn’t have the jurisdiction to try her.

The court is notorious for its secretive nature. A range of cases are brought before the court under broadly worded counter-terrorism laws that criminalize acts such as insulting the government and “disobeying the ruler.”

Lina Alhathloul with her sister Loujain. (Lina Alhathloul)

Alhathloul, who had an international profile prior to her detention, was first accused of attempting to destabilize the Saudi kingdom. Since then, those charges have been changed to communicating with foreign journalists and attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations.

“They say there’s been a lack of jurisdiction after dealing with it for more than a year and it’s just not credible anymore,” said Lina Alhathloul.

“All these decisions have been very impulsive and unexpected so to be honest we’re not really shocked. We’re disappointed because we thought her nightmare might end now, but it’s not.”

When asked about her case last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said she and the other women on trial were not detained because of their human rights activity and that they are “charged with serious crimes.”

He defended Saudi courts as independent, and said her release is up to the courts, not the government. 

Deteriorating physically

Lina Alhathloul was told by her parents, who attended the trial, that her sister appeared weak and was “shaking uncontrollably.”

“Her body was very weak, even her voice was shaky,” she said.

Alhathloul has been on an intermittent hunger strike since the summer.

Her parents said Alhathloul told them that over the past two weeks, prison guards had been entering her cell every two to three hours to prevent her from sleeping, resulting in her eventually ending her hunger strike.

Alhathloul had previously told her family that she’d suffered electrocution, flogging and sexual assault during her detention, but that the conditions of her detention had since improved.

Lina Alhathloul said she remains hopeful that her sister will be released — even as the Saudi judicial system continues to operate in opaque and unpredictable ways.

“I don’t expect anything anymore,” Lina Alhathloul said.

“What I hope for is that because it’s been transferred to another court, maybe the case can move forward and finally they’ll admit that there’s a lack of evidence. That’s the only thing I can think of because I have to be hopeful.”

Since her detention Alhathloul has received a number of human rights awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.