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Saudi Arabia urged by activist groups to release jailed women's rights defenders

Riyadh asked to unconditionally drop charges against Loujain al-Hathloul and others
Loujain al-Hathloul and 12 other women's rights activists are facing 'sham trials' in Saudi Arabia (AFP/File photo)

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have been urged to release prominent female activists whose arrests two years ago signaled a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

Loujain al-Hathloul, an advocate for women's rights in the kingdom, was among several activists arrested on 15 May 2018.

She was apprehended in the United Arab Emirates and deported to Saudi Arabia weeks before the much-publicised lifting of the kingdom's driving ban on women in June 2018 - a right she had long championed.

In a statement released on Friday marking the two-year anniversary of the arrests, 17 organisations including Amnesty International, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and Code Pink called on the US to press for their release and for Washington to "reevaluate" its relationship with Riyadh.

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"We, the undersigned, call on Saudi authorities to end their campaign to silence dissent and repress freedom of expression, release all prisoners of conscience, and immediately and unconditionally drop legal charges against them," the statement said.

"By arresting the very women - including Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, and Aziza al-Yousef - who had long peacefully advocated for the right to drive and other basic rights, as well as at least four men who supported their efforts, the Saudi government sent a chilling message that any expression of dissent or effort to improve the rights of Saudi citizens would be harshly punished."

Speaking with Newsweek on Friday, Loujain's sister, Lina, said the activist was "losing hope" after her trial date was pushed back indefinitely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We can hear that she's losing hope," Lina said. "It's really worrying that my parents can't visit her."

Her family has previously said Loujain has been subject to torture and sexual abuse while in prison.

'Striking lack of due process'

Amnesty International said last week that 13 of the women's rights activists were facing "sham trials" over charges that include communicating with journalists and human rights organisations. 

"The trials have been marked by a striking lack of due process: The defendants were not informed of the charges against them prior to the trial; they were not allowed to speak during the hearings; and their lawyers and foreign journalists were barred from attendance," the groups said.

Eight of the 13 detainees have been granted temporary release but are still facing charges, while Hathloul and four others are still in jail.

The groups added that the crackdown on women's rights defenders was part of a broader campaign of repression led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, citing the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and arrests of numerous peaceful activists.

Friday's statement also called on the US government and international community to call for "the release of these women’s rights activists, journalists, and all other prisoners of conscience".

It urged governments to reconsider their participation in the G20 summit that is set to be held in Riyadh in November.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly ignored calls from rights groups and foreign governments to free the activists.

Last year, the European Parliament called for the "immediate and unconditional" release of the detainees, while UN experts have called the detention of women's rights activists "shockingly hypocritical".