Saturday

8th May 2021

In Saudi Arabia, contacting the EU is a crime

  • Women's rights activists face trial in Saudi Arabia, with a possible five-year jail sentence (Photo: Andres Musta)

On Wednesday (11 March), Loujain al-Hathloul, a female Saudi activist will go to court for a hearing on her trial.

Al-Hathloul was one of the activists who opposed Saudi Arabia's male guardianship and defied the ban for women to drive cars.

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In March 2018, she was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates and put in jail in Saudi Arabia, where she was tortured.

After a brief release, she and four other women's rights activists were arrested again in May 2018.

When Saudi Arabia legalised driving by women in June 2018, al-Hathloul remained under arrest, together with the other female activists.

According to her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, who lives in Brussels, Loujain "was held in solitary confinement for no less than eight months, without knowing what she was accused of," adding that "this is absolutely unacceptable."

Now, eight months later, her trial is starting and the accusations are known.

One of her 'crimes' appears to be "contacting the embassy of the Netherlands and the EU delegation."

According to the allegation, "she had requested from them to discuss her previous detention with European governments and human rights organisations to pressure the kingdom."

In other words, as one of the charges makes clear, in Saudi Arabia, contacting an EU embassy is a crime.

According to Lina, the prosecutor asks "the maximum sentence, which would mean five years in jail, a fine of 3m riyals [€700,000] and a travel ban."

Although contacting the EU is one of the reasons al-Hathloul may be convicted, there has been no public reaction from the EU foreign service, nor has the Saudi ambassador been asked to explain this accusation.

Instead, according to a spokesperson from the European Commission, the EU is "aware of this case and raised it at different levels with the Saudi authorities including during the visit of Saudi state minister al-Jubeir to Brussels in January."

He added that "the EU has sought further clarity on the charges and on whether her arrest was also based on her engagement with the EU delegation and member states' embassies."

Saudi Arabia seems to be not impressed and has not allowed EU diplomats to attend the hearings of the trial - despite a request of the EU delegation to do so.

MEP visit

The European Parliament has voted on several resolutions to condemn the imprisonment of activists, like the liberal blogger and Sacharov Prize winner Raif Badawi and al-Hathloul herself.

At the end of February, a European Parliament delegation went on a visit to Saudi Arabia. The delegation comprised four MEPs: Hannah Neumann (Greens) as head of delegation and Silviu Busoi (EPP), Eva Kaili (S&D) and Matteo Adinolfi (ID) as members.

Neumann told EUobserver that "even though there are improvements on women's rights in Saudi Arabia, it is totally unacceptable that being in contact with the EU delegation, other embassies or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International are a reason to be jailed."

The fact that the EP delegation did raise the cases of Badawi and al-Hathloul did not make the Saudis change their mind.

Asked if the EU is doing enough for al-Hathloul, Neumann said "the EU, and especially the EU delegation in Riyadh, is pushing hard to be allowed to be able to attend the trials, now and in the past, but they were never allowed in."

However, more could be done.

The two problems, according to Neumann, "are that the Saudis always claim that these cases would be easier solved if the EU doesn't make too much noise."

But "more importantly", she added, is that "the EU could pressure Saudi Arabia more if the EU and the member states would be on the same line. This is not the case today as France and other countries are still selling arms to the Saudis despite repeated calls by the European parliament for a ban".

Resolving this problem of internal European division will take more time than al-Hathloul has.

Therefore, according to her sister Lina, the EU "should keep trying to attend the trial unless a clear legal reason is given to them why they won't be allowed in."

A request from EUobserver to the Saudi embassy in Brussels for comment on the al-Hathloul case had received no response at the time of publication.

However, as the hearing of the trial is on Wednesday, there does not seem to be much hope Saudi Arabia is going to change its mind. Despite the EU's public discourse on the important human rights, it seems it will come away empty-handed.

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