On 27 March, 11 Saudi women return to court, among them some of the kingdom’s best known women’s rights activists including Aziza Al-Yousef, Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi. Their first court hearing was on 13 March. Journalists and foreign diplomats were banned from attending that hearing.
Human Rights Watch is among several international rights groups who have highlighted credible reports that the women, who have been in detention for several months and in some cases nearly a year, were subjected to torture. In at least one case, a detainee reportedly attempted suicide after being repeatedly subjected to torture that included electric shock, sexual harassment and threats of rape.
The global outrage at the treatment of the women has sparked anxiety and concern within the Saudi government about the reputational damage being caused to the country at a time when its putative leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is attempting to rebrand Saudi Arabia as moderate and progressive. The prince had been hailed as a reformer after granting women the right to drive early last year.
However the arrest and callous treatment of women who had campaigned for years for that right undercut the image. It was further tarnished with the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. Among others, the CIA holds the crown prince responsible for ordering his killing.
A source close to the British embassy in Riyadh told me “the Saudi government has been shamed globally by jailing outstanding women who have been peaceful activists working for decades on women’s rights. Like the murder of Khashoggi, their incarceration is viewed as disgraceful and illegal, another example of the impetuous Saudi police state, damaging Saudi Arabia’s foreign relations and its investment prospects.”
The source added: “It is absurd: none of the women is a threat to national security. Their imprisonment is costing a lot of reputation to the Saudi government and gaining the government nothing.”
The British government, while publicly saying little about the case, is attempting high-level intervention and is working with their embassy staff in Riyadh to ensure the situation is raised at every meeting with the Saudis while at the same time continuing to seek access to the women, the source said.
The activists had originally been charged with conspiring to spy against the kingdom on behalf of Iran and Qatar and were set to be tried in a special court. The Saudis view Iran as their greatest regional threat. And together with the Emiratis they launched a land, air and sea blockade of their Gulf neighbour Qatar in June 2017, accusing the Qataris of financing terrorism. However just before the women were to make their first appearance, their cases were abruptly shifted to the criminal court system and the charges of conspiring with Iran and Qatar dropped.
The hope is that the huge embarrassment the case is causing the Saudis and the enormous reputational damage being done will force the authorities to seek a swift resolution which will include much reduced charges and sentences that will take into account time already served in detention. In that scenario most of the women would be released at their next court date currently believed to be 10 April.
However there are concerns that one of the leading activists, Loujain Al-Hathloul, whose family have gone public about the torture allegations, will be punished more severely. If she is sentenced under cybercrime legislation, the maximum penalty is five years in prison and a fine. If a crime against Shari’ah is added the penalty can be increased, up to seven or nine years.
The opacity of the Saudi judicial system and the fact that the authorities are thus far refusing foreign diplomats and journalists into the court makes it difficult to assess what the ultimate fate of the women will be or indeed what the actual charges are. However, it is safe to assume the court will not investigate allegations of torture and will deny that confessions were secured under duress or that the women were in any way ill-treated.
The women have been moved to Dhahban prison in Jeddah where their treatment has reportedly improved and some progress has been made towards legal representation. In the first session on 13 March they were all represented by lawyers, after previously being denied any legal access. But the time they have with their lawyers is limited to two hours a week, clearly not enough for them to prepare their cases.
One further indication that the authorities are seeking to contain reputational damage is the decision to commute the death penalty to a long prison term of Israa Al-Ghomgham, a female Shia activist. Her sentence of execution by beheading had caused worldwide outrage.
Regardless of how the Saudi judicial system chooses to treat the women, and common decency cries out they should all be released without charge immediately, the damage is already done. The good will that Mohammed Bin Salman secured in the west when he announced that women would be allowed to drive has long since evaporated. The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi simply confirmed that whatever business the world chooses to do with the crown prince, it will be done with the wide eyed understanding it is dealing with a brutal authoritarian. No amount of damage control exercises and public relations spends will alter that reality.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.