Women's Rights Trial Casts Light on Hardline Approach in Saudi Arabia

Three Saudi women are currently on trial in Riyadh, charged with espionage and conspiracy. The truth is that the women merely advocated for women's rights. They have reportedly been tortured in a case that has cast light on the kingdom's new hardline approach.

Nina Manandhar


Eman al-Nafjan must have guessed they were coming for her. A few weeks before her arrest by Saudi authorities, the women's-rights activist changed her profile picture on WhatsApp. Instead of her face and soft, brown hair, it showed a reptile with its mouth open. Deep in the animal's throat was a frog, petrified by fear, at the moment of death.

It was a harbinger of doom. Nafjan, 38 years old and a well-organized mother of four children, had been committed to fighting for human rights in her country, especially women's rights for over a decade. At the time, her youngest daughter was just 2.

Sometime between May 15 and 18, Nafjan was arrested. Around the same time, Saudi secret police rounded up other female activists from their homes. For years, the women have been fighting together for the right to drive and the abolition of Saudi Arabia's so-called guardianship law, which gives men in the kingdom extensive control over their female relatives. Men can be notified via a government app when their wives or daughters want to cross the border.

A few days after her arrest, Nafjan's face appeared on the front page of one of Saudi Arabia's government-friendly newspapers. There were also two pictures of other women's rights advocates, including the country's most famous feminist, Loujain al-Hathloul, 29, and retired IT professor Aziza al-Yousef, 60. The word "traitor" was plastered above each of their heads in bright red.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Saudi Activists Tried and Tortured

Treating Human Rights Activists Like Terrorists

The Saudi government accused the women of "coordinated activities to undermine the security, stability and natural unity of the kingdom." These are serious allegations. In Saudi Arabia, treason is sometimes punished more severely than murder, and in a trial that treats human-rights activists like terrorists, Nafjan and her fellow campaigners cannot expect leniency.

Sources from the Saudi royal court in Riyadh say the women may face up to 20 years in prison or be sentenced to death. Two weeks ago, public prosecutors announced that their investigations were complete -- nine months after the women had been arrested.

On March 7, the United Nations Human Rights Council called on Riyadh to release the women as well as other activists. The declaration was signed by 36 countries, including all 28 European Union member states.

On Wednesday, March 13, the trials of the first activists, including Yousef, al-Hathloul and Nafjan, began. Among other things, they are accused of maintaining suspicious contacts with foreign powers and offering financial support to "hostile elements" abroad. That's not good news.

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Nafjan is one of the kingdom's first bloggers. At saudiwoman.me, she discussed controversial social issues, such as the true meaning of Wahhabism, how divorces work in Saudi Arabia and why secretive second marriages were so popular.

During my first visit to Saudi Arabia in 2011, I met her at a Starbucks in Riyadh's diplomatic quarter. She wore a black abaya and a black headscarf, as well as black pants and a black blouse. At the time, there weren't a whole lot of places where one could even arrange to meet in the Saudi capital. At first, Nafjan was very careful, almost suspicious. She weighed her words. It took a while for us to build trust. But every time I traveled to Saudi Arabia, I visited her. We became friends.

Nafjan studied in Birmingham, England. She lived in a house near Riyadh airport with her husband, an IT engineer, and their children. Her husband wasn't too happy about his wife's activism, but they respected each other and he didn't get in her way as long as the welfare of the family was not endangered. Nafjan was careful never to cross this line.

But after the seizure of power by King Salman and his son, the ambitious crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, also referred to at home by his initials MBS, there appears to have been a shift. The line that Nafjan had been so careful not to cross has moved. Nafjan was fascinated by this new ruler, who was five years her junior. The crown prince opened the economy and relaxed religious prohibitions. He was celebrated internationally as a reformer.

During a meeting with journalists, he announced that he intended to turn the country upside down. He's a self-described "bulldozer" who flattens anyone who gets in the way of his plans. It never occurred to Nafjan at the time that one day, she could become one of MBS' victims.

I Am My Own Guardian

Al-Hathloul, Yousef and Nafjan met each other on social media. At one point, we arranged for the four of us to meet. At that point, Al-Hathloul was already living in the United Arab Emirates, where she studies sociology at the Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi. It could have been a security measure -- after all, she spent 73 days in jail back in 2014 and 2015.

At our meeting, the women had taken off their abayas. They were all wearing self-made blue rubber armbands that said, in Arabic: I am my own guardian. This kind of activism is unusual in Saudi Arabia, but the small club is far from a political conspiracy.

Looking back, it seems almost ironic that Nafjan still supported the crown prince even though censorship in the kingdom had been at its strictest level in decades. Before she would join the legions of other imprisoned Saudis, some 1,500 journalists, clerics and critics would be arrested first. "Anything is better than the crippling stillstand of recent years," Nafjan said at one of our meetings last year.

The activists' arrests and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul five months later have become symbols of the new political hardline being taken in the kingdom. Relatives of the activists, as well as officials familiar with their cases, routinely report that the women are being tortured during their interrogations. There has been talk of electroshocks and waterboarding, but also threats to rape or kill them.

Human rights organizations and newspapers have reported as much. In the case of Nafjan and her fellow campaigners, it could very well be that such attention actually provokes their tormentors. One Twitter user with the handle @hw_saudiwomen reports that one woman was repeatedly touched inappropriately while being told that it was punishment for her contact with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the UN.

One of the activists was reportedly told that all of her children were dead. When she begged to at least be allowed to see them before they were buried, she discovered that it was just another story designed to break her. The children were alive. Aziza al-Yousef's kids are all grown up. Loujain al-Hathloul doesn't have any. Nafjan, on the other hand, has four -- so if the reports are true, then she was the likely victim.

One Violation After Another

When al-Hathloul's parents visited their daughter in prison at the end of 2018, they returned home deeply shocked. They had already noticed during another visit -- they're permitted one per month -- that their daughter was making uncontrolled movements, trembling and struggling to walk. But only when they read the reports from human rights organizations did they realize was al-Hathloul was going through. When they asked her about it, she broke down crying and confided that she had been regularly tortured from May to August, when she was held in solitary confinement and had no visitors.

One of the crown prince's closest confidants, Saud al-Qahtani, had been present at least one of the times, she said. The former director of the media department of the royal court is considered to be the crown prince's right hand man. The CIA believes al-Qahtani oversaw the murder of Khashoggi from Riyadh. Since then, he has topped the list of people who are no longer allowed to enter the U.S.

Loujain al-Hathloul told her parents that al-Qahtani, along with six other men, had physically abused her for an entire night during the month of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Her parents saw their daughter's thighs, which still showed traces of torture. Al-Qahtani then forced Hathloul to eat with them after sunrise, she said, a violation of one of the five pillars of Islam.

The Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission also read Amnesty International's torture reports. A delegation then visited Loujain al-Hathloul in prison. She told them everything that had happened. When the young woman asked the delegates whether they would be able to protect her from further torture, they replied: "No, we can't."

Al-Hathloul's father tweeted about the abuse of his daughter. His account was frozen shortly thereafter. His voice, too, had been silenced. Al-Hathloul's parents, like their daughter, have been blocked from leaving the country since March 2018.

Espionage Accusations

Around five weeks after the activists' arrests, the first Saudi woman was officially allowed to drive. The government had yielded to public pressure and MBS wanted to present himself as a modernizer. The historic event was celebrated worldwide -- albeit without the heroines who had helped make it possible in the first place.

The crown prince also could have used the woman to burnish his own image, as a sign of progress. Instead he had them locked up. He claimed the arrests had "100 percent" nothing to do with the women's rights campaigns.

In October 2018, MBS told Bloomberg his government had evidence, including videos and recordings of phone calls, that the women had provided foreign spy services with information. He said the investigations clearly showed they had been involved in "intelligence work against Saudi Arabia," adding: "They have a network, connection with government people, leaking information for the sake these other governments." MBS purported there were video recordings of those detained in which they can be seen talking to foreign intelligence officers. "We can show it to you. Tomorrow we will show you the videos," the crown prince promised the Bloomberg journalists. He never followed through, neither with the videos nor the phone call logs.

Family, friends and diplomats are at a loss as to how to help the women. If they remain silent, no one will know about their plight. But if they publicize it, there is the fear that the prisoners will be punished again or that their supporters might themselves become the next targets of MBS' new hard line.

A Vicious Cycle

That's exactly what happened to Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in August 2018. In a tweet, Freeland said she and her government "continue to strongly call for the release" of the human rights activist Samar Badawi, who was also arrested in 2018. Her admonishment quickly turned into a state affair. Shortly thereafter, MBS ordered all diplomatic and economic ties with Canada to be severed.

International media asked Saudi authorities whether the allegations that the activists had been tortured had any merit. The answers they received went something like this: "The Saudi Arabia judicial system does not tolerate, encourage or permit the use of torture. Everyone, male or female, who is under investigation, goes through the usual judicial process under the direction of the public prosecutor and is detained for questioning, which in no way occurs with the use of torture, whether physical, sexual or psychological."

For several weeks, intellectuals such as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have called for Loujain al-Hathloul to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But it's possible that exactly this attention could lead to the women's rapid convictions, in order for them to be withdrawn from the public spotlight.

Hathloul's brother confirmed several days ago that his sister still had no access to lawyers and that she would be brought in front of a court responsible for prosecuting terrorists. He also said that until her court date, she had not been made aware of the charges against her.

Eman al-Nafjan is neither a dissident nor an enemy of the Saudi regime. She is one of the most judicious people I have ever met in the kingdom.

When I lived in Riyadh last year, I wanted to give Nafjan a gift before leaving. I bought her a gift certificate for a spa. When I was back in Berlin, I received a WhatsApp message that was typical of Nafjan's wry, unsettling style: "I redeemed your gift certificate right away last night. In case I get arrested. It would be annoying if it expired."


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