Ahead of the 43nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) submitted a written statement to the Council concerning Ongoing Detention of Women’s Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia. Continue reading below for the full text of the statement, or click here for PDF
Ongoing Detention of Women’s Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes this opportunity at the 43d session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) to draw attention to the ongoing imprisonment of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Since 2018 in particular, the kingdom has targeted prominent female human rights defenders with arrest and ill-treatment, and several still remain detained.
The Situation of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia and the Silencing of Dissent
Under Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship, women are restricted from independently making a number of everyday decisions without first obtaining the permission of their male guardian – whether it be their husband, brother, or father, or other male relative.
Until June 2018, restrictions on women’s actions also extended to driving. While some saw the lifting of the ban on women driving as a step towards gender equality in Saudi Arabia, several underlying events indicated the kingdom’s reluctance to embrace gender equality. Before the lifting of the ban, Saudi authorities warned women’s rights activists to refrain from making public statements regarding this policy change. The government also detained several prominent rights defenders without charging them, or on the basis of false accusations.
In August 2019, Saudi Arabia announced that new legal changes would allow Saudi women to obtain passports without requiring the approval of a male relative, to benefit from protections against employment discrimination, and to register the births of their children. Even as the government mandated these changes, it continued to hold women’s rights defenders in detention.
Detained Women’s Right Defenders
Many women’s rights defenders and activists were detained prior to, or soon after, the lifting of the driving ban in 2018, including Loujain AlHathloul, Aziza AlYousef, Eman AlNafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa AlZahrani, Samar Badawi, Nassima AlSaada, Hatoon AlFassi, Shadan AlOnezi, and Amal AlHarbi. In March and April 2019, several months after their initial arrest, many of the women were brought to trial – with charges including violating the kingdom’s broad cybercrime law. Several of the women have been temporarily released, but remain on trial, and Samar Badawi, Nassima AlSaada, and Loujain AlHathloul remain imprisoned.
In 2019, security forces arrested at least 20 individuals known to support the women’s rights movement, including male relatives of women human rights defenders. They are also being detained without charge. More broadly, since October 2018, when Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, security forces have arrested about 30 women’s rights activists.
The Targeting of Samar Badawi, Nassima AlSaada, and Loujain AlHathloul
Samar Badawi and Nassima AlSaada were arrested in July 2018, but were not referred to trial with the majority of imprisoned women’s rights defenders – whose trials began in March 2019 and who have been temporarily released. While Loujain AlHathloul was referred to trial, she remains in prison where she is facing torture and abuse. During the trials, the Saudi government classified the women as “foreign agents” due to their alleged contact with international journalists, foreign diplomats, Saudi human rights activists living abroad, and international human rights organizations. They also face charges of Saudi Arabia’s ambiguous cybercrime law which prohibits “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network.” Under this law, authorities have jailed human rights activists and defenders who criticize Saudi human rights abuses online.
Badawi has been fighting for women’s rights in the kingdom since 2010 when she filed a lawsuit against the government challenging the male guardianship system. She has since become a prominent figure of the struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. During the 27th session of the HRC in September 2014, Badawi participated in a panel on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and delivered an oral intervention in front of the Council focused on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and calling for the release of political prisoners. In December 2014, Badawi attempted to fly to Brussels to participate in the 16th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum, but was banned from travelling and has since been unable to leave the country. In 2016, Badawi was detained with her daughter for protesting restrictions placed on women’s access to healthcare and travel. In 2017, she was again harassed by the authorities as they summoned her for questioning without providing any reason and was held temporarily held before being released.
Similarly, AlSaada has been a target of the Saudi government due to her activism. She has been vocal in the struggle for human rights and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and supports protestors who champion human rights. Like Badawi, authorities have tried to intimidate AlSaada with interrogations and have warned her about her advocacy work. Her name was removed from the ballot when she attempted to run for election on the municipal council in 2015.
AlHathloul was arrested in May 2018, and was one of the leading activists in the campaign for the right of women to drive. She has been particularly outspoken on the torture she has endured since being arrested. AlHathloul’s family has alleged that Loujain was recently given the opportunity to be freed, but under the condition that she first publicly denied that she was subjected to torture – which she refused.
Lack of Investigation into Claims of Torture
In November 2018, human rights organizations started to report that Saudi authorities tortured at least four of the female detainees with electric shocks, whippings, and even sexual harassment and assault during interrogations. Additionally, some of the individuals, including AlSaada, have been placed in prolonged solitary confinement. There has been a lack of credible and effective investigations into the women’s claims of torture and ill-treatment and no perpetrators have been held accountable.
Loujain AlHathloul, along with three other women, has been held in solitary confinement where she has become a victim of abuse and torture including electric shocks, flogging, and sexual assault. She was offered a deal that would grant her freedom in exchange for her denying that she was subjected to torture. However, she rejected the deal and remains incarcerated.
The international community has called for the release of women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia. In August 2018, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called for the release of Badawi and other human rights activists. In response, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian Ambassador, suspended all new bilateral trade, cancelled state airline flights to Canada, and withdrew Saudi students from Canadian universities.
In January 2019, Members of the British Parliament and international lawyers sent an official request to Saudi authorities to access the country and visit the detainees, but never received a response. The European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately release women’s rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists who have been detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful human rights work. The resolution additionally called for an EU-wide ban on the exporting of surveillance systems to Saudi Arabia. Also, in February 2019, members of the US Congress issued a resolution calling on Saudi Arabia to release jailed women’s rights activists and to hold accountable those responsible for the abuses that took place.
In March 2019, 36 countries at the UN HRC issued a joint statement calling on Saudi Arabia to release women’s rights defenders.
Conclusion and Recommendations
As a member of the UN HRC, it is important that Saudi Arabia be held to high standard when it comes to its commitment to human rights, including full cooperation with the UN mechanisms that would facilitate this process. The detention of activists, specifically those advocating for human rights, is deeply concerning. Despite nominal measures being taken to improve women’s rights, these steps mean nothing if the country continues its increasing crackdown on activists.
ADHRB urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to:
- Immediately drop all charges against women’s rights defenders targeted for their activism;
- Release all imprisoned women’s rights defenders like Samar Badawi and Nassima AlSaada;
- Release all human rights defenders and political prisoners currently detained and drop all charges against them;
- Stop the harassment of peaceful protestors as they are exercising their right to freedom of expression and opinion, assembly, and association and;
- Abolish the male guardianship system in its entirety.
 “Saudi Arabia: Important Advances for Saudi Women,” Human Rights Watch, 2 August 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/02/saudi-arabia-important-advances-saudi-women
 “Saudi Arabia: Women’s Rights Activists Charged,” Human Rights Watch, 1 March 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/01/saudi-arabia-womens-rights-activists-charged
 “Saudi Arabia: Women’s rights reforms must be followed by release of detained activists,” Amnesty International, 2 August 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/08/saudi-arabia-womens-rights-reforms-must-be-followed-by-release-of-detained-activists/
 Safi, Michael. “Saudi Arabia: Arrests of Dissidents and Torture Allegations Continue.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Nov. 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/04/saudi-arabia-mass-arrests-of-dissidents-and-torture-allegations-continue.
 “Saudi Arabia: Abusive Charges Against Women Activists,” Human Rights Watch, 21 March 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/21/saudi-arabia-abusive-charges-against-women-activists.
 “Jailed Saudi activist rejects deal to deny torture for release, says family,” CNN, 14 August 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/14/middleeast/saudi-hathloul-torture-intl/index.html.
 Kalin, Stephen. “Saudi Women Activists Detail Torture Allegations in Court.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Mar. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-arrests/saudi-women-activists-detail-torture-allegations-in-court-idUSKCN1R80M6.