It had been a month since Loujain al-Hathoul’s family had seen her. On Wednesday, she emerged into a court weakened by a two-week hunger-strike, launched in protest at her prison conditions. She shook as she read her defence, and denied all the charges laid out against her. For her family, it was a bittersweet moment: they could see her, but she wasn’t being freed anytime soon.
Al-Hathloul's family had rushed to the Criminal Court in Riyadh on Wednesday with only one day's notice, to hear the judge conclude her case was not within their "jurisdiction," and had be tried in a separate terrorism court.
Her case was transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), a terrorism tribunal set up in 2008. It has a questionable reputation of being used as tool to crack down on government critics, handing out long prison sentences and death penalties, indicating that the nightmare al-Hathloul and her family are living is far from over.
Al-Hathloul, now 31, was arrested with her lawyer and several other prominent human rights defenders in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia partially lifted a ban on women driving. Al-Hathloul had achieved international prominence for her campaign against the ban, and had frequently been arrested for publicly flouting it. But this time was different, and under the regime of de facto leader Mohammed Bin Salman, she was charged with spying for a foreign state, although any such evidence is yet to be provided.
Her sister Lina al-Hathloul had been feeling optimistic after receiving the short notice for the hearing on Tuesday. It came amid mounting international pressure for al-Hathloul’s release, and immediately followed the virtual G20 summit, nominally held in Saudi Arabia over the weekend.
"Everything happened so fast, our family got notified about the hearing just one day before, and we were excited to see her again after her latest hunger strike,” she told VICE World News over the phone.
"She told my parents during the hearing that she had to break her [hunger] strike after two weeks, the guards deprived her from sleeping at night by waking her up every two hours with excuses of routine check, and exhausting her mentally." she added
The decision to transfer al-Hathloul’s case to the notorious terrorism tribunal is deeply worrying, said Lynn Maalouf, the Middle East research director of Amnesty International, who described the terror tribunal as "an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials."
"Saudi authorities could have decided to end the two-year nightmare for brave human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul… Instead, in a disturbing move, they transferred her case to the SCC,” Maalouf said.
MBS, the Saudi crown prince, attempted to turn the decades-long struggle of women activists like al-Hathloul into a personal achievement by lifting Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving in June 2018, in an attempt to portray himself as a “reformist” prince, a worthy ally of the modern Western democracies.
Saudi royals have managed to mostly keep their ties with the Western world, including MBS who received the full support of the Trump administration despite being heavily connected to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Under the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden, the young Saudi crown prince is not likely to enjoy the same protections, as the US "reassesses" its relation with Saudi Arabia, and its record of human rights violations at home and abroad.
Lina is still waiting for her sister to finally be free meanwhile.
"I hoped this court would accelerate the process and drop the charges against her, but we haven't got any date for the hearing yet,” she said.