UN experts calls on Riyadh regime to free Saudi woman activist

Imprisoned Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul (Photo by the Financial Times)

A group of United Nations human rights experts have urged Saudi authorities to release jailed prominent Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, whose arrest more than four years ago marked the start of a crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against women activists in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

“It is shockingly hypocritical that Ms. al-Hathloul remains in prison for campaigning to change laws which have since been amended. Indeed, she should never have been imprisoned in the first place for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” the experts said in a  statement on Friday.

The statement added, “In spite of recent improvements in Saudi Arabia's male guardianship laws, it is imperative that the world [should] not lose sight of the human rights concerns which persist in the country, as human rights defenders have continued to express.”

The UN experts then called on the Saudi regime “to immediately release Ms. al-Hathloul and all other human rights defenders in Saudi prisons, and urged Saudi officials “to launch a prompt, effective and independent investigation into whether she has been tortured.”

“No one should suffer such adversity for exercising their right to defend the human rights of others,” they pointed out.

Back on August 13, Hathloul’s family said she had dismissed a proposal to secure her release from prison in exchange for a video testimony denying that she had been tortured and sexually harassed in custody.

“The Saudi state security has visited my sister in prison recently. They have asked her to... appear on video to deny the torture and harassment. That was part of a deal to release her,” her brother, Walid al-Hathloul, who is based in Canada, wrote on Twitter at the time.

Walid went on to say that Loujain, who recently marked her 30th birthday in jail, had initially agreed to sign a document denying that she had been tortured, as a precondition for her release.

Loujain al-Hathloul is among around a dozen renowned Saudi women’s rights activists, who are currently facing trial after being detained in a sweeping crackdown on political dissidents and pro-democracy campaigners last year.

She was among a number of detainees, who have accused interrogators of subjecting them to torture, including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault in detention.

Saudi authorities have denied torture allegations, and said the arrests were made on suspicion of harming the interests of the ruling Riyadh regime and offering support to hostile elements abroad.

Hathloul’s family maintains that Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to the crown prince who has also been implicated in the murder of well-known journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's consulate in Turkey last October, was present during some of the activist’s torture sessions and even threatened to rape and kill her.

Saudi Arabia has lately stepped up politically-motivated arrests, prosecution and conviction of peaceful dissident writers and human rights campaigners.

Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws to target activism.

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