The trial of Saudi women's rights activists Loujain Al-Hathloul, has been moved to a special court that handles terrorism cases. The decision, which represents an escalation of the state's case against the 31-year-old who first came to prominence as a campaigner for women's right to drive in the kingdom, comes days after Saudi Arabia wrapped up this year's G20 Summit where one of the themes for the annual event was "women's empowerment".
Al-Hathloul's trial was expected to start yesterday, almost one month after she went on hunger strike. With the judge handing over her case to a "specialised criminal court" that handles terrorism cases, it's predicted that there will be further delays. She has been in jail without trial for over 900 days, and her family said she looked weak and unwell during her rare court appearance yesterday, her body shaking and her voice faint.
Saudi's decision to handle her case in a terrorism court has been met with criticism from campaign groups. "We're very concerned about the use of this court, because it is supposed to look into cases of terrorism. It is not the place to try peaceful human rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul," said Hashem Hashem, regional campaigner for Amnesty International.
"We are concerned that this transfer is to further muzzle peaceful and critical voices and to punish activists such as Loujain for demanding change and reform," Hashem went on to say.
The "lack of jurisdiction" by the criminal court, which has been handling the case since March 2019, was cited as the reason for transferring Al-Hathloul's case to a terrorism court, prompting further anger amongst her family. "It's incomprehensible that after such a long time that they just now realise that the court is not specialised," said Lina Al-Hathloul, sister of the jailed activist. "Loujain still does not have any evidence of the accusation. It will be nearly now three years that she has remained in pre-trial detention and should be released."
Al-Hathloul was arrested along with about a dozen other female activists in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female drivers. She went on a hunger strike in October for several weeks to protest against her prison conditions. A report realised earlier this month alleged that she was amongst a number of female activists that were being tortured and forced to carry out "sex acts" while in detention.
Lawmakers and campaign groups had urged world leaders to boycott this year's G20 Summit held over the weekend in Riyadh. With the W20 Women's Summit taking place in the Saudi capital concurrently, rights groups had blasted the kingdom for what they described as blatant hypocrisy; supposedly promoting equality and women's empowerment on the one hand, while jailing activists campaigning with that exact goal in mind.