Saudi Arabia: Free Women Human Rights Defenders Immediately!


In 2018, Saudi Arabia arbitrarily arrested 13 women’s rights activists simply for demanding equality and defending human rights in the Kingdom, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Aziza al-Yousef, Iman al-Nafjan and Maya’a al-Zahrani.

Many of these women led the campaign for lifting the driving ban on women over the past years. The ban was lifted in June 2018, but some of the women who made it happen still haven’t had the opportunity to legally sit behind the wheel, instead they are sitting behind bars, locked up in prison cells or released on conditional basis and subjected to travel bans.

For the first three months of their detention, several women activists endured torture, sexual abuse and other forms of ill-treatment when they were held incommunicado and in solitary confinement with no access to their families or lawyers. Nassima al-Sada was held in solitary confinement for approximately one year in al-Mabahith prison in Dammam.

On 13 March 2019, Loujain, Iman, and Aziza were among 11 women activists brought to trial before the Criminal Court in Riyadh. The court session was closed and diplomats and journalists were banned from attending. Several women activists face charges of contacting foreign media, other activists and international organizations including Amnesty International. Some of them were also accused of “promoting women’s rights” and “calling for the end of the male guardianship system.

Following the court session, Iman, Aziza and a few other women activists including Dr Ruqayyah al-Muharib, Amal al-Harbi, Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi, Dr. Abir al-Namankani and Maysaa al-Mane’a were temporarily and provisionally released. However, they continue to face trial and remain at risk of being sentenced to prison terms. In July, Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi were also brought to trial facing similar charges related to their activism.

On 25 November 2020, after almost nine months of detention without trial, the Saudi authorities resumed the court proceedings due to mounting international pressure. As a result, December saw Nassima and Samar sentenced by the Criminal Court while Loujain was sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) – a court mandated to try terrorism-related cases but commonly used by Saudi authorities to muzzle critical voices.

After a horrible ordeal including, torture, incommunicado detention, solitary confinement and harassment, Loujain al-Hathloul was conditionally released on 10 February 2021. She remains under travel ban and “probation”, thus deprived from the basic right of freedom of movement and expression.

Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada and Maya’a al-Zahrani are still locked up in prison away from their loved ones. They must be immediately and unconditionally released to continue their peaceful human rights work towards a better future for their country and people.

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman have been initiating social and economic reforms in the Kingdom. But these changes cannot cover up for the ongoing human rights abuses and brutal crackdown on human rights activists and anyone who dares to express an independent opinion. Actual change can only be achieved with those who have been leading the fight for this change, not despite them.

These women are the visionaries and drivers of change in Saudi Arabia. They should not be punished for it! Tell King Salman to release them immediately!

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Who are some of the brave women human rights defenders?

Loujain al-Hathloul

Loujain al-Hathloul is one of the most outspoken women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. She is well-known for her campaigning against the driving ban and the campaign to end the male guardianship system. In 2014, she was detained for 73 days after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. Loujain al-Hathloul also went on to stand for election in Saudi Arabia in November 2015 – the first time when women were allowed to both vote and stand in elections in the state. However, despite finally being recognized as a candidate, her name was never added to the ballot.

Saudi officials detained Loujain al-Hathloul without charge or trial from 17 May 2018 until 13 March 2019, when she appeared for her first court session. Loujain al-Hathloul was subjected to lengthy spells in solitary confinement between 2019 and 2020. For the first three months of detention, Loujain al-Hathloul endured torture, sexual abuse and other forms of ill-treatment when she was held incommunicado and in solitary confinement with no access to her family or lawyer.

On 13 March 2019, Loujain al-Hathloul was among 11 women activists brought to trial before the Criminal Court in Riyadh. The court session was closed, and diplomats and journalists were banned from attending. Several women activists face charges of contacting foreign media, other activists and international organizations including Amnesty International. Some of them were also accused of “promoting women’s rights” and “calling for the end of the male guardianship system.”

On 26 October 2020, Loujain al-Hathloul went on hunger strike for two weeks, in protest at being denied regular contact with her family.

As a result of mounting international pressure, Saudi authorities resumed trials of detained women activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, on 25 November 2020. Loujain al-Hathloul’s case was transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in December after the Criminal Court concluded that it was “outside its jurisdiction”. The SCC specializes in trying terrorism-related cases and should not be trying and sentencing peaceful activists.

On 28 December, Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced by the SCC to five years and eight months in prison - partially suspended by two years and ten months - after a deeply unfair trial. She was charged with “spying with foreign parties” and “conspiring against the kingdom” for promoting women’s rights and calling for the end of the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia.

On 10 February 2021, Loujain al-Hathloul was conditionally released and continues to be on probation for 3 years and on a travel ban for five years. Loujain’s sentence was upheld by the SCC Appeal Court on 10 March.

Amnesty International calls on Saudi authorities to quash Loujain al-Hathloul’s sentence and travel ban, compensate her for arbitrary detention and effectively investigate her claims of torture in detention.

Tell Saudi authorities to drop Loujain al-Hathloul’s sentence and lift the travel ban imposed on her, so that she can travel, move and work freely!

Iman al-Nafjan

Iman al-Nafjan, an activist, blogger, linguistics professor and mother of four has been one of the leading campaigners for women’s right to drive and the campaign to end the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia. She defied the driving ban in 2013 and has been repeatedly harassed for her human rights work.

Iman al-Nafjan was detained without charge or trial from 17 May 2018 until 13 March 2019, when she appeared for her first court session. On 28 March 2020, Iman al-Nafjan was released provisionally, however she remains on trial on charges related to her human rights work that could result in a lengthy prison sentence.

Aziza al-Youssef

Aziza al-Youssef is an activist, retired professor, mother of five and grandmother of eight. She is a prominent women’s rights activist who has worked tirelessly to support women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She has repeatedly participated in defying the driving ban and has been harassed and interrogated for her human rights work. In 2016, she delivered a petition signed by 15,000 people to the royal court, demanding an end to the male guardianship system.

Aziza al-Youssef was detained without charge or trial from 17 May 2018 until 13 March 2019, when she appeared for her first court session. On 29 March 2020, Aziza al-Youssef was released provisionally, however she remains on trial on charges related to her human rights work that could result in a lengthy prison sentence

Samar Badawi

Samar Badawi is an activist and mother of two who had been repeatedly targeted and interrogated by the Saudi Arabian authorities for her human rights activism. In 2014, she was subjected to a travel ban and in 2016 was arrested for her human rights work. She is the sister of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website for public debate.

Samar Badawi was detained without charge or trial from July 2018 until June 2019 when she appeared for her first court session.

After months of delays and prolonged detention without trial, and due to mounting international pressure, Saudi authorities resumed trials of detained women activists, including Samar Badawi, on 25 November 2020.

On 25 November 2020, Samar Badawi was sentenced by the Criminal Court in Riyadh to five years prison term - with partial suspension by two years - and a travel ban of five years. She remains in detention serving this sentence.

Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Samar Badawi and quashing the travel ban instated on her.

Nassima al-Sada

Nassima al-Sada is an activist, human rights educator and mother of three who has campaigned for civil and political rights, women’s rights and the rights of the Shi’a minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for many years. She stood in municipal elections in 2015 but was banned from participating. She has also campaigned for the right of women to drive and for the end of male guardianship system.

Nassima al-Sada was detained without charge or trial from July 2018 until June 2019 when she appeared for her first court session. She was also placed in solitary confinement from February 2019 until the beginning 2020.

After months of delays and prolonged detention without trial, and due to mounting international pressure, Saudi authorities resumed trials of detained women activists, including Nassima al-Sada, on 25 November 2020.

On 25 November 2020, Nassima al-Sada was sentenced by the Criminal Court in Riyadh to five years prison term - with partial suspension by two years - and a travel ban of five years. She remains in detention serving this sentence.

Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Nassima al-Sada and quashing the travel ban instated on her.

Maya’a al-Zahrani

Maya’a al-Zahrani is a Saudi woman human rights defender who has been detained since June 2018. She was brought to trial before the Criminal Court in Riyadh on 13 March 2019 with other women activists who were then charged with promoting women’s rights and calling for the end of the male guardianship system. The women were also charged with contacting international organizations, foreign media and other activists, including their contact with Amnesty International.

After months of delays and prolonged detention without trial, and due to mounting international pressure, Saudi authorities resumed trials of detained women activists, including Maya’a al-Zahrani, on 25 November 2020. The trials resulted in several prison sentences being handed down following unfair trials. She remains in detention serving a prison sentence.

Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Maya’a al-Zahrani and quashing any travel ban that might be instated on her.

Here's what you can do:

Take Action Now!

Tell King Salman to immediately and unconditionally free all activists!

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Saudi Arabian authorities need to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release the human rights defenders, including women, detained for their peaceful human rights work as they are prisoners of conscience;
  • Ensure that charges are dropped against all 13 WHRDs and Saudi women activists on trial for promoting women’s rights;;
  • Quash the travel ban imposed on WHRDs and their families;
  • Allow foreign diplomats and journalists access to the trial sessions;
  • Ensure that WHRDs are protected from threats and harassments and are able to safely continue their human rights work without intimidation or fear of persecution.

Tweet to Saudi Arabian authorities @KingSalman using the hashtag #FreeSaudiHeroes