Saudi Arabia, MBS Are Benefiting From Trump 'Silence,' Says Sister of Jailed Activist Loujain al-Hathloul

Hopes that Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul would be released by the kingdom's authoritarian government were dashed Wednesday, when her case was sent to the country's secretive Specialized Criminal Court used to try terrorist offenses and silence dissidents.

Al-Hathloul appeared in court looking shaken and unwell, according to her family. She has been held without trial for more than 900 days, in which time she has allegedly been tortured, sexually assaulted and held incommunicado.

Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain's sister, told Newsweek shortly after the hearing that the family was not surprised at the decision to move the case and would continue to hope and fight for her release as the "sham trial" continues.

Meanwhile, Lina said, the al-Hathloul family is hoping that President-elect Joe Biden will throw the weight of his administration behind jailed human rights activists in Saudi Arabia in his promise to reassess America's ties with the kingdom.

Al-Hathloul has been imprisoned by the Saudi government since 2018, arrested alongside several other women's right activists just days before the kingdom dropped its longstanding ban on women driving.

The arrests were seen as a message from the ruling royal family—and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—that the kingdom would not accept external demands for reform, even as MBS pushes ahead with his Vision 2030 program to transform Saudi Arabia's economy and society.

Al-Hathloul appeared alongside three other women's rights activists on Wednesday. The court session took place days after the close of the virtual G20 summit in Riyadh, which was attended by world leaders despite calls from human rights groups to boycott the event over the kingdom's domestic human rights abuses and the war in Yemen.

Women's empowerment was one of the summit's themes and there had been hopes that al-Hathloul and others might be released in the lead-up to the event.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.K., Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, told The Guardian earlier this month: "The G20, does it offer an opportunity for clemency? Possibly. That is a judgment for someone other than me."

But Wednesday's decision to hand the case to the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) marks an escalation of the government's attempts to suppress al-Hathloul.

"I'm always very hopeful, but I'm always also disappointed," Lina al-Hathloul told Newsweek after the hearing. "It's just not credible anymore," she said of the case against her sister.

"Everything that they have been doing since the beginning of the case is illegal, unjust, and we cannot believe anything anymore," Lina added. "So we don't expect anything. And of course, we're always disappointed because we want Loujain to be free and the other activists as well. But we just try not to expect anything anymore."

Lina dismissed the ambassador's Guardian interview as "absurd" and said any hint of pressure prompted Riyadh to circle the wagons to dodge further scrutiny.

"We call it now the 'Kingdom of Denial,'" Lina said. "Every time there's pressure, they just deny everything. And it's very tiring for us to campaign for the activists to be released because we don't have any access to anything, and they can just deny everything."

The opaque SCC is part of the Ministry of the Interior rather than the Ministry of Justice, meaning it is concerned with matters of national security. The court is nominally used to try terrorist cases, but is often used to prosecute human rights activists and political dissidents away from the prying eyes of the outside world.

An Amnesty International statement said the SCC was "an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials." The human rights group said the decision to try al-Hathloul there was "yet another sign that Saudi Arabia's claims of reform on human rights are a farce."

Lina said: "It's just too obvious that all of this case, all of this trial, is a sham trial." The court said Wednesday it would open an investigation into the alleged abuse of al-Hathloul during her detention. Her sister's reaction was blunt: "I'll only believe it when I see it.

"It's quite clear that there's just no place for justice, there's no place for anyone to be free, to have basic freedoms, whether they're behind bars or just inside of the country," Lina said. "It just shows how Saudi Arabia is becoming a very violent, repressive police state."

MBS has cemented his position with an iron fist, jailing human rights activists; imprisoning, torturing and extorting even the country's wealthiest and most powerful people; and waging a violent campaign against dissidents abroad, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The White House has, however, stood by the crown prince, who is widely seen as the power behind his father King Salman's throne. President Donald Trump has publicly supported MBS and prioritized Riyadh's purchase of American weaponry and its support in Washington, D.C.'s efforts to contain Iran.

"I don't think it's a secret," Lina said, when asked if Trump had facilitated the kingdom's crackdown on dissidents. "MBS couldn't have done so much without the U.S. administration's silence," she added.

Biden has promised to reassess America's ties with the "pariah" state. The president-elect said in October his administration would "end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil."

Biden has also vowed to put democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy platform. Lina said this was encouraging and she hoped the next administration would put the fate of her sister and other activists front and center in its conversations with Riyadh.

"It's not possible to deal with a country that kills journalists and cut them into pieces, that tortures women in prisons, that abuses them sexually," Lina said.

Until then, Lina said the family would keep fighting. "The only thing we can do is hope, you know. Otherwise, we cannot continue our fight."

Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi Arabia, human rights, Trump
A projection on the Louvre Museum in Paris depicts jailed Saudi human rights activists including Loujain al-Hathloul (C). The projection by Amnesty International members appeared on November 19, just before a virtual G20 summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images/Getty