This year has been filled with news of Indian activists suffering in prison. Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Dr Kafeel Khan and others are a few whose ordeals were covered by the media. The lapses by authorities in providing a sipper to the octogenarian Fr Stan Swamy and spectacles to Navlakha were even reported by international media. But India is not the only country where the treatment of activists has attracted negative global attention. In Saudi Arabia, a country with a dubious human rights record, a recent verdict sentencing women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to nearly six years in jail has drawn criticism for its severity.
The sentence was handed out by the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh, which was originally set up to deal with criminal cases, but has in recent years been used to conduct trials of dissenters and critics of the ruling establishment. In al-Hathloul’s case, the charges against her were in connection to her protests against the country’s law-forbidding women to drive and its laws on male guardianship for women citizens – both of which have been struck down in the months following her arrest.
This discrepancy, where al-Hathloul is being sent to prison for protesting against something the Saudi government proudly claims to have resigned to history, has caused her sister to accuse the regime of hypocrisy. Al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina, who lives outside Saudi Arabia, greeted the news of her sentencing by tweeting, “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”
As things stand, Loujain al-Hathloul has been made a scapegoat by the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia.
The arrest and sentencing of al-Hathloul has once again drawn international attention to Saudi Arabia’s patchy human rights record. In 2018, the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi led to scrutiny that undid much of current head of state Mohammad bin Salman’s push to portray the nation as a place undergoing a social change. On top of the draconian approach with which al-Hathloul’s protest was handled, al-Hathloul and her family have claimed that she was kidnapped from Abu Dhabi and taken to Saudi Arabia, and that she had been tortured, sexually assaulted, and threatened while in custody. In 2019, al-Hathloul refused to retract the allegations in exchange for an early release.
With connections to global rights group Amnesty International, prosecutors also claimed that al-Hathloul was pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order. However, many international commentators have seen things differently, calling out the Specialised Criminal Court’s ruling in the case. The incoming US President Joe Biden’s nominee for National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan wrote on Twitter, “Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Loujain al-Hathloul for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.” Spokespersons for international groups like Human Rights Watch have also spoken out against al-Hathloul’s prison sentence.
As things stand, al-Hathloul has been made a scapegoat by the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia. She was sent to prison for agitating for changes that were eventually made by the government regardless. In the fight to advance women’s rights in a regressive society, al-Hathloul sacrificed her freedom.