Saudi Arabia continues to detain, harass and torture human rights defenders


On 28th December 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced prominent Saudi woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison. The sentence includes a suspension of two years and ten months in addition to the time already served (since May 2018) which would see Al-Hathloul’s release in February 2021. She is also required to serve three years of probation during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity. She will also be placed under a five-year travel ban.

The sentence was condemned for conflating activism with terrorism by the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, which consists of Equality Now, Women’s March Global, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights Bahrain (ADHRB), Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and CIVICUS. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), GCHR, ALQST for Human Rights and the League for Human Rights also criticised the Saudi regime’s persecution of Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nassima Al-Saddah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, Miyaa Al-Zahrani and Mohammed Al-Bajadi, all of whom remain behind bars since 2018. Commemorating one year after the first Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, the organisations called on those racing in the Rally from 3rd to 15th January 2021 to demonstrate their solidarity with the women who spearheaded the #WomensRight2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul’s case was initially tried in Riyadh’s criminal court on trumped up charges including destabilising national security and working with foreign entities against the state, before being transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court (also known as the Terrorism Court) on 25th November 2020. However, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the family was then informed that the case was summarily sent back to the Criminal Court, and had multiple hearings in December 2020. On 24th December, the Court again postponed her hearing until 28th December 2020.

Al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina Al-Hathloul condemned the judicial harassment of her sister, stating:

“My sister must be released … All she has done is ask for women to be treated with the dignity and freedom that should be their right. They say she is a terrorist – in reality she is a humanitarian, an activist and a woman who simply wants a better fairer world.”

Human Rights Watch similarly condemned the “rushing through” of the “closed trial” of the prominent women’s human rights defender and highlighted the irony of the opening of her trial on 10th December, International Human Rights Day.

In separate developments, on 8th December 2020, a Saudi court sentenced Saudi-American medical doctor Dr Walid Fitaihi to six years in prison on vague charges including “breaking allegiance with the ruler” by “sympathising” with a “terrorist organisation,” which are tied to his peaceful political views and expression. Dr Fitaihi was arrested in November 2017 and held without charge or trial until August 2019, when he was finally brought to trial on vague charges including sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly criticising Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with only a few vague tweets provided as evidence.

Along with seven of his family members who are also US citizens, he has been subjected to a travel ban since November 2017. Human Rights Watch also reported that the Saudi government has frozen the family’s assets since 2017 and that Dr Fitaihi remains free pending appeal.


On 1st December 2020, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced human rights defender Mohammad Abdullah Al-Otaibi to another year in prison, including six months for travelling to Qatar in 2017 and another six months for tweets he posted during that period, reports GCHR. This is in addition to a previous judgment by the SCC which had sentenced Al-Otaibi to 14 years in prison and his colleague Abdulla Madhi Al-Attawi to seven years in prison on 25th January 2018. The two were charged, among other things, with participating in setting up a human rights organisation (the Union for Human Rights) and announcing it, prior to obtaining an official permit; preparing and signing petitions and publishing them on the Internet, which harms the reputation of the Kingdom and its justice and security institutions; publishing information about their interrogation despite signing pledges not to do so; spreading chaos and inciting public opinion; re-tweeting a tweet on Twitter after it was published by a member of the Civil and Political Rights Association in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), human rights defender Issa Al-Hamed, who is currently in prison.

Separately, domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, including personal drivers, continue to be subjected to abuse, exploitation and forced labour as a result of the notorious kafala system, which ties the legal status of millions of workers to individual sponsors. In October 2020, the Saudi authorities announced new reforms to the kafala system that would be introduced in March 2021. According to the authorities, the reforms will ease restrictions relating to migrant workers’ ability to change employers or leave the country. However, Human Rights Watch criticised the proposed reforms for excluding 3.7 million domestic workers, many of whom work in private households. Therefore, although signalling a step in the right direction, the proposed reforms ultimately fail to fully abolish this exploitative and abusive labour system.