Saudi Arabia: Loujain Al-Hathloul among finalists for prestigious human rights prize


The shortlist of nominees for the 2020 Václav Havel Prize, which honours outstanding civil society action defending human rights, is comprised entirely of women, from Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, to a group of Buddhist nuns in Nepal and Julienne Lusenge in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Like her fellow nominees in Nepal and Congo, Loujain Al-Hathloul is a strong advocate for women’s rights, having boldly campaigned for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia as well as against the repressive male guardianship system.

The 31-year-old has already spent two and a half years behind bars and was recently sentenced to five years and eight months in jail, on spurious charges. She is expected to be released in March 2021, considering the suspension of part of her sentence and backdating the start of her jail term to account for time already served. Mayaa Al-Zahrani was issued the same sentence for a similar list of charges.

While Loujain and others were outspoken in their efforts to win women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, they have been punished – subjected to imprisonment, judicial harassment, or even tortured, sexually abused in custody. Many women’s rights defenders were arrested and detained mid-2018, and several remain imprisoned to this day, including Nassima Al-Saddah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, Mayaa Al-Zahrani and Mohammed Al-Bajadi. FIDH and 33 other human rights groups wrote to Dr Awwad bin Saleh Al Awwad, President of the Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia, last November, urging the release of women’s rights defenders.

Shortly after the activists’ arrest, the Kingdom recognised women’s right to drive in June 2018, while retaliating against those leading the movement to fight for that right. In 2021, for the second year in a row, Saudi Arabia hosted the Dakar Rally, an iconic off-road endurance race previously held from Paris to Dakar and in Latin America.

FIDH and others have persistently denounced the use of the Dakar Rally as a public relations tool to whitewash (or ‘sportswash’) the image of the Kingdom, which has been the object of international outrage about premeditated killing and cover-up of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its brutal war campaign in Yemen, and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s power grab. With the Dakar Rally continuing through this week, FIDH’s campaign asks competitors and all those who support the cause of Saudi human rights defenders to relay the hashtag #StandWithSaudiHeroes and to wear a pink armband in solidarity.

The annual prize, which grants the winner €60,000, will be awarded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on 19 April 2021. “The women and men who work every day to uphold our rights deserve our profoundest gratitude and admiration,” said PACE President Rik Daems in a statement. “Often at great personal cost, they hold governments to account and stand up for equal rights with courage and determination. They are on the front line of building a fairer and more just world, and we are all in their debt.”

The two other nominees shortlisted for the prize are the Nuns of the Drukpa Order – young Buddhist nuns who promoting gender equality, environmental sustainability and intercultural tolerance in the Himalayas – and Julienne Lusenge, an advocate for survivors of wartime sexual violence in Congo who has been instrumental in obtaining convictions of those who enlisted child soldiers and perpetrators of sexual violence against women.

In 2018 the prize was awarded to Oyub Titiev, who heads Chechnya’s Memorial Human Rights Center, and in 2013 to Ales Bialiatski, founder of Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Center and former FIDH vice president; both Memorial and Viasna are members of FIDH.

The prize, awarded annually since 2013 by PACE, in partnership with the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation, is named after playwright, former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic and democracy activist Václav Havel (1936-2011). Havel was a staunch opponent of totalitarianism, leader of the Velvet Revolution, and remains an enduring icon for human rights and freedoms.

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