Loujain al Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist, has been released from a Saudi Arabian prison after she was detained in December 2018 for allegedly threatening Saudi Arabia’s national security and challenging its political system. These charges have been labeled as “extremely alarming and spurious” by UN human rights experts. Hathloul is a passionate defender of human rights and has been campaigning against the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia. This system gives the male guardians of a household the authority to make critical decisions on behalf of the women in his household.
Essentially, women are required to obtain permission from their male guardians to gain access to basic health care, work, marry, travel, and the list goes on. The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia has been described by the Humans Right Watch as the “most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country”. Hathloul along with many other outspoken campaigners wishes to see a social change where both men and women are treated as equals in the eyes of the law, but how can the country experience positive social change when Saudi officials are arresting and silencing the change-makers?
During her time in prison, Hathloul stated that she had been subjected to abuse including waterboarding, flogging, electric shock, and sexual assault. Saudi Arabian authorities have denied such claims. Hathloul still faces a 5-year travel ban and is now seeking to hold Saudi Arabian officials accountable for the torture and pain inflicted on her almost three-year stay in prison. Hathloul is just one of many other women activists who have been detained by the Saudi government whilst advocating for basic human rights.
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed Houthloul’s release, emphasizing that “it is important that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped”
Elizabeth Broderick, the chairman of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, argued in December 2020 that “Saudi Arabia has a primary responsibility and duty to protect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms”. She then stressed that “Saudi Arabia can not turn a blind eye to the arbitrary detention and allegation of torture of a woman whose only reason for imprisonment was to advance women’s rights”.
Hathloul’s sister and family told an online news conference that “all we want now is real justice”.
This isn’t the first time Saudi Arabia has arrested political and human rights activists. Amnesty International reported that in 2019 Saudi Arabia arrested 14 individuals who were part of a women’s rights peaceful protest. These 14 individuals consisted of novelists, journalists, and advocates championing women’s empowerment. Amnesty expressed that “Saudi Arabian authorities continued to arbitrarily detain human right defenders for a prolonged period of time without bringing them before a court or charging them”.
UN human rights experts have argued that “defending human rights can never be considered a threat to national security”. Hathloul’s activism should not have been perceived as a threat to Saudi Arabia’s political system, demanding for basic human rights should never be construed as treasonous.
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