Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan
Writer-activists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan have been subjected to imprisonment, solitary confinement, and torture by the Saudi Arabian government as part of its brutal crackdown on individuals who raise their voices in defense of women’s rights in the Kingdom. In May and June 2018, just as the government was lifting the ban on women driving, many activists who had campaigned against the ban and for women’s rights were arrested. Among those detained were journalist, blogger, and activist Nouf Abdulaziz; activist and social media commentator Loujain Al-Hathloul; and blogger, columnist, and activist Eman Al-Nafjan. That the Saudi government would reform the driving law and simultaneously put those who had called for such reforms in prison makes clear their actual motive: to silence dissent and prevent these women’s powerful voices from being heard.
Abdulaziz, Al-Hathloul, and Al-Nafjan have had little contact with or access to family members or counsel during months of detention without charge, and have reportedly been subject to torture, isolation, and threats of rape. On March 1, 2019, the Saudi public prosecutor’s office announced that they had concluded their investigation and were preparing charges; initial hearings were held for Al-Hathloul and Al-Nafjan on March 13 in Riyadh.
On March 14, 2019, PEN America announced that Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan would receive the 2019 PEN America/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, to be presented May 21 at the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In announcing the award, PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said:
“The fleeting hope that generational transition in the Saudi leadership would open the door toward greater respect for individual rights and international law has collapsed entirely, with individuals paying the highest price as the government resorts to rank barbarism as a blunt means to suppress and deter dissent. These gutsy women have challenged one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments, inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of medieval bondage that has no place in the 21st century. We are proud to honor these drivers of change—Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan—for their fearless words and actions, and to send a strong signal that international pressure on the Saudi Kingdom to respect dissent and adhere to international norms of free expression will not relent.”
Long considered one of the most restrictive countries in the world, political and civil rights in Saudi Arabia are almost nonexistent. Women’s rights are particularly restricted, including under the architecture of the “guardianship system,” which constricts women’s ability to travel, marry, drive, work, or receive education and healthcare without approval from a male guardian. As Al-Nafjan herself wrote, “I don’t believe gender differences are so strongly felt anywhere in the world as in Saudi Arabia.” While these women’s detentions appear directly linked to advocacy around women’s right to drive, they have all also actively fought back against the broader system of repression under which Saudi women exist. In a country where women’s voices are all too often silenced, these women used their writing—through their blogs, articles, and social media commentary—as a way to speak out.
The three women were initially detained without charge at Dhahban Central Prison, along with a number of other women’s rights activists, and were then moved to Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh. Since their arrests, they have been kept incommunicado, with barely any contact with or access to family members or counsel. Furthermore, their current health situation and the conditions under which they are held are unclear. Most disturbingly, there have been reports from their families that some of the women have been subjected to torture in the form of electrocution, electric shock treatment, waterboarding, flogging, sexual harassment, and threats of rape. A report of the Detention Review Panel, a Panel of British Parliamentarians reviewing the detention conditions of women activists, found that their treatment ‘constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and could meet the threshold for torture under both Saudi Arabian and International law.’ Loujain Al-Hathloul’s sister alleged that Al-Hathloul has been ‘beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder.’ These allegations and those made by other human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, were considered to be ‘likely true’ by the Detention Review Panel, but they were dismissed as unfounded by the Saudi Arabian government.
On March 1, 2019, the Saudi public prosecutor’s office announced that they had concluded their investigation into the defendants and had prepared unspecified indictments against them. While the statement did not identify any names nor give a possible date for trial proceedings to start, it alleged that the arrested activists were undertaking “coordinated and organized activities… that aim to undermine the Kingdom’s security, stability, and national unity” and would face charges. On March 13, initial hearings were held in a number of the cases, including for Al-Hathloul and Al-Nafjan, in Riyadh. The women were not allowed access to a lawyer or to hear the charges prior to the hearings; while family members were permitted to attend, the court was closed to both diplomats and journalists, and the charges were still not specified.
Nouf Abdulaziz is a journalist, blogger, and human rights activist. She is a supporter of constitutional reform in Saudi Arabia and has written about human rights violations and feminist issues on her blog and for the feminist website The Arab Noon. Abdulaziz was arrested on June 6, 2018. Shortly thereafter, fellow women’s rights activist Mayya Al-Zahrani shared a letter Abdulaziz had written, which she had wanted published in the event of her arrest (Al-Zahrani was subsequently arrested as well). In her letter, Abdulaziz describes herself as “a writer, a reading addict since I was six-years-old…a quiet girl except for the questions that storm my mind,” and asks, “Why is our homeland so small and tight, and why am I considered a criminal or enemy that threatens it?”
Loujain Al-Hathloul has a long history of women’s rights activism and is one of the most outspoken human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, primarily via commentary on social media. She gained notoriety for campaigning against the driving ban, including posting videos of herself driving as part of a 2013 campaign, and has advocated for an end to the male guardianship system. She was arrested in December 2014 when she attempted to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia and spent 73 days in custody. According to reports, she was arrested again in June 2017 at the airport in Damman for unstated reasons and taken to Riyadh for questioning, to be released after a few days. In March 2018, her husband, Fahad al-Butairi, was arrested in Jordan and was taken to Saudi Arabia. On May 15, 2018, a group of armed men from the state security agency raided her family’s house and arrested Loujain.
Eman Al-Nafjan is a prominent figure in the Saudi women’s rights movement, a professor of linguistics, a freelance columnist, and author of the Saudiwoman blog launched in 2008. Eman was arrested on May 17, 2018. On her blog, she frequently posted commentary on the male guardianship law, which she called “the abuse system,” and she called for an end to child marriage and abuses by the religious police. She also exposed how Saudi authorities were spying on Saudi citizens through social media applications. Al-Nafjan has written for The Guardian, CNN, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and Amnesty International. Saudiwoman was listed as one of the ‘Ten must-read blogs from the Middle East’ by the CNN in 2011. Foreign Policy named her one of the 100 Global Thinkers of 2011.
May 2, 2019: Saudi Arabian authorities temporarily release at least four women’s rights activists with whom Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan stand trial. However, the reason for and the conditions of their release are not clear. Nouf Abdulaziz and Loujain Al-Hathloul remain imprisoned.
April 17, 2019: A Saudi court postpones the fourth hearing of the trial of women’s rights activists, including Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan, in a last minute decision. A court official cites the judge’s “private reasons” for the decision, without providing a date for the next hearing.
March 28, 2019: Eman Al-Nafjan is temporarily released from prison along with two other women. Nouf Abdulaziz and Loujain Al-Hathloul remain in detention.
March 15, 2019: Eman Al-Nafjan is included on a list of 10 most urgent cases of journalists whose free expression is at risk and where justice is demanded by the world. The list is put together by the One Free Press Coalition, a group composed of leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Associated Press, Time, Huffington Post to spotlight journalists under attack globally.
March 13, 2019: The first hearing since their arrest is held for 11 women’s rights activists, including Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan, before the Criminal Court in Riyadh, according to reports. The trial was initially planned to be held before Saudi Arabia’s “terrorism court” but was switched to the Criminal Court in the last minute. There are no reasons submitted by the Saudi authorities for this change. Reports further indicate that the defendants were denied access to lawyers and were not informed of the charges prior to the hearing. Reporters and diplomats are barred from attending the hearing, as the trial is not made public due to ‘privacy concerns’, as stated by the Court president Ibrahim al-Sayari.
Although no formal charges are published, reports indicate several crimes the defendants were charged with, including contacting “enemy groups”—in reference to their cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms, foreign media, and other activists; promoting women’s rights on social media; and calling for the end of the male guardianship system. They are also charged under the Cybercrime Law, a conviction under which may result in a prison sentence up to five years and a fine of up to three million Saudi Riyals.
March 9, 2019: Loujain’s Al-Hathloul’s relatives report that an initial hearing will be held on March 13 in her case; she is expected to be charged with national security crimes.
March 7, 2019: Three dozen countries, including all EU member states, call for the release of the women activists at the UN Human Rights Council. The United States does not back the joint country statement.
March 1, 2019: The Saudi public prosecutor’s office says that prosecutors have concluded their investigation into the defendants and have prepared unspecified indictments against them, and will refer the case to a relevant court.
February 13, 2019: HR 129 is introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-FL) calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the detained women.
February 10, 2019: The Washington Post Editorial Board writes another editorial decrying the torture of the imprisoned women.
January 26, 2019: The Washington Post Editorial board writes an editorial calling on Congress to stand up for the imprisoned Saudi women.
January 14, 2019: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that he raised the issue of the detained women’s rights activists with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
January, 2019: A cross-party group of British parliamentarians and international lawyers seek access to Saudi activists.
December 17, 2018: Saudi Arabia’s human rights commission investigates the alleged torture of women’s rights activists.
December 13, 2018: The US Senate passed Joint Resolution 69 which called on the government of Saudi Arabia to release detained women’s rights activists.
December 12, 2018: The UN Committee against Torture urged Saudi authorities to free detained human rights activists and alleged some had been tortured or mistreated.
December 1, 2018: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about the release of women’s rights activists at the G20 Summit.
November 20, 2018: Amnesty International reports that some women held in Dhahban Prison have faced torture and sexual harassment.
October 12, 2018: UN human rights experts urge Saudi Arabia to release all women human rights defenders.
June 6, 2018: Nouf Abdulaziz is arrested and detained at Dhahban Central Prison.
May 15-17, 2018: Loujain Al-Hathloul, Eman Al-Nafjan, and a number of other women are arrested and detained at Dhahban Central Prison.
From the letter Nouf Abdulaziz wrote and gave to a friend to be published in the event of her arrest:
“My name is Nouf, and I am not an agitator, subversive, a terrorist, a criminal, nor a traitor.
I am a daughter to a great mother who, I believe, suffers because of me; I am a daughter to a kind and honorable family that has suffered because of what has happened to me. I am a graduate student who was not afforded the opportunity to finish her degree. If I have to describe myself in a few words, I’d say that I’m a writer, an avid reader since I was 6 years old, clever as my father says, and a quiet girl who’s mind if filled with many questions…Why did our homeland become so unwelcoming to us? And why am I considered an enemy and a criminal who threatens its security?!…I do not know of any crime I committed other than feeling for every wretched and oppressed person in my society…Take my life and my health, and all that I have, if it benefits my homeland and brings it glory. Take my present and my future, and all that I love, if it pleases you and benefits our people. However, do not wrong me and dispossess me of my right to life, freedom, and dignity, and all that I have dreamed of and all that I have aspired to, so that I be just a sacrifice that benefits some private interest…bless our people with insight so that they know that their sister has been wronged and that she deserves nothing but her freedom, dignity, and the embrace of her family from which she was taken away.”
From Loujain Al-Hathloul’s blog, commenting on the criticism she received for her activism:
“Others laid blame on me and claimed that what I did was going to delay the official decision to lift the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, especially since my attempt was seen as a direct challenge against the government; they ignored the fact that their silence for 22 years did not have any positive outcome either…Regardless of all of the aforementioned, this does not mean that we will give up nor drastically change our ways, which we believe will bring about development in our country without infringing on others nor hurting them in any way…We have to all realise that criticising some phenomena in our home country does not equate to hating it, wishing evil upon it nor is it an attempt to shake its balance, it’s the total opposite. Any Saudi citizen might be upset by some incidents that occur in the Kingdom, but that is only a direct sign of one’s interest in the betterment of one’s own country and one’s hope to see Saudi Arabia as a global leader.”
From Eman Al-Nafjan’s article in Foreign Policy, “What Do Saudi Women Want?”:
“I am happy to say that I am one of many women hungry for self-determination — women who have realized that though liberty and rights come with responsibility, it also gives them and their daughters the autonomy to pursue their happiness.
And yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Saudi women who are fighting for their rights — and the well-covered driving campaign is just one of many battles, from fighting for the right to manage their own businesses to being allowed to freely leave and enter the country without their guardian’s permission. Even something as simple as recognizing women lawyers in our judicial system could be transformational. And that, of course, is why it is so hard.”
The world’s attention has recently, and rightly, turned to Saudi Arabia as a result of the brutal and horrific murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by government agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. The Saudi government’s disregard for human rights, however, is nothing new. Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, is one of the most restrictive countries in the world, but conditions have worsened even further under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Although the Crown Prince initially styled himself as a ‘reformer,’ he has overseen a vast crackdown on all forms of opposition and dissent. In November 2018, the CIA concluded that the Crown Prince ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. In a Washington Post column dated May 21, 2018, in which he wrote about the arrests of activists, Khashoggi wrote: “The message is clear to all: Activism of any sort has to be within the government, and no independent voice or counter-opinion will be allowed. Everyone must stick to the party line.”