With Saudi Women’s Rights Activists Behind Bars, Athletes Racing in Dakar Rally Should Show Support

Paris, Beirut — One year after the first edition of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, FIDH and its member organisations in Saudi Arabia, ALQST for Human Rights, in the Gulf, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), and in France, the League for Human Rights once again express their concern to see this annual sporting event happen again, in the same place, while the kingdom’s human rights record continues to worsen.

"Due to the inaction of the Saudi regime’s partners, women’s rights defenders Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nassima Al-Saddah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, Mayaa Al-Zahrani and Mohammed Al-Bajadi remain behind bars since 2018. Several of them have been tortured, sexually abused and otherwise ill-treated without the right to an effective remedy. And yet, these activists have been on the front line of defending human rights in their country, starting with the right of women to drive", denounced Alice Mogwe, president of FIDH.

One year ago, David Castera, the director of the Dakar Rally, welcomed the "opening" of the country by the Saudi authorities and saw in the holding of the race an opportunity to support the right of women to drive. However, as part of this so-called opening, while women have been allowed to drive since June 2018, the very people who strived to defend this right remain in prison.

A year later, the repression orchestrated by the Saudi authorities against the defence of human rights has accelerated. The women who participated in the #WomensRight2Drive campaign are on trial. Such is the case with Loujain Al-Hathloul, winner of the 2020 Freedom Prize of the Normandy World Peace Forum, who has been detained since May 2018, which marked the beginning of the crackdown on Saudi women human rights defenders. Her case was transferred in November 2020 to a court dealing with terrorism cases. This Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) is known to flout fair trial standards. Loujain Al-Hathloul faced up to 20 years in prison for, among other things, "contacting Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch", "applying for a job at the United Nations" and "sending information" on the human rights situation to the UN human rights mechanisms.

After several postponements, and 958 days in pre-trial detention, Loujain was sentenced yesterday to five years and eight months in prison. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, and counted the time already served, meaning that Loujain will likely be released in February 2021. She will still face, however, three years’ probation and a five-year travel ban.

In this context, the Dakar Rally must not become an exercise in smoke and mirrors that would only tackle sand dunes and not injustice. The values of sport are incompatible with those of a state that tortures female activists or murders its journalists. Competitors must seize this opportunity to become champions of human rights. This is the meaning of the hashtag of the #StandWithSaudiHeroes campaign.

Our organisations are among 15 NGOs which recommend, in a joint letter, that the rally organisers, participants and official broadcasters urge the Saudi authorities to drop all charges against Saudi women’s human rights defenders and to immediately release those detained. Rally drivers – both men and women – should speak up, putting pressure on the Saudi authorities to take action. Our campaign is asking them, the competitors and all those sensitive to the cause of Saudi human rights defenders to relay the hashtag #StandWithSaudiHeroes and to wear a pink armband as a sign of solidarity.

Read more