The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A sham trial exposes Saudi Arabia’s continued disrespect for its citizens

Demonstrators from Amnesty International called for the release of jailed Saudi activists outside the Saudi Embassy in Paris on March 8. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Hala Al-Dosari, an activist, scholar and writer from Saudi Arabia, is The Post’s first Jamal Khashoggi fellow.

Before writing this column, I reread all of Jamal Khashoggi’s work published in Global Opinions. He focused mostly on reforms, participatory politics and the pervasive abuse of power in Saudi Arabia. But at their core, his columns were a desperate call for restoring respect toward Saudi citizens.

He wrote only 20 articles. We all now know how he was punished and later smeared as a traitor.

Read this piece in Arabic here.

People in Saudi Arabia expected an end to the persecution of civil society activists after the state acknowledged his brutal murder. Instead, the regime has doubled down by continuing to prosecute a group of female activists accused of undermining Saudi Arabia’s security. On Wednesday, their sham trial began — nearly a year after they were detained.

The women have been subjected to horrific torture and sexual harassment, but in a statement the government claimed the accused were enjoying their full rights. Meanwhile, state-linked social media accounts have already virtually convicted the activists and are asking for the maximum punishment. An enthusiastic member of the ruling family posted a poll to measure support for the death penalty. Such callousness is reprehensible.

Against this background, Saudi Arabia decided to appoint its first female ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar. It’s another opportunity to push an apologetic reform narrative amid U.S. congressional scrutiny and pressure. Many will take the bait, as they did when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first came to power.

In our collective conscience as a nation, these female activists facing trial — and the men who support them — were instrumental in influencing reforms.

We can never discuss the crippling impacts of the male-guardianship system without recalling Aziza al-Yousef, a retired university professor, submitting 15,000 signatures in a petition to the royal court. The ban on driving would not have been lifted without Loujain al-Hathloul driving from the United Arab Emirates to the Saudi border, demanding to use her Gulf Cooperation Council-valid driving license on Saudi lands just like her male fellow citizens.

The ability of women to mobilize their communities attests to the leadership of Eman al-Nafjan, a blogger and a linguistics professor, in promoting the driving campaign. The capacity-building of women to participate in municipal elections owes a big debt to Hatoon Al-Fassi, a renowned professor of women’s history. Nouf Abdulaziz, a TV producer and outspoken activist for prisoners of conscience, was arrested for her acts of solidarity.

These women worked organically to leverage their community support and ease the severe restrictions imposed on free expression, assembly and women’s rights. Their only crime is caring enough for their country, despite all the risks and intimidation.

These brave women have fought against violence and unfair laws for years, only to be confronted with violence and lawlessness in prison. Though the escalating abuse of power is not restricted to the female activists, it has been mostly intensified in their case. The treatment of female activists reflects brutality and vindictiveness. It stands against any legal or moral obligations of the state.

I can never accept the argument of fighting for reforms “from within” when reformists are being aggressively persecuted. I can’t see how assassination, arbitrary detention and torture of the most despicable nature can be overlooked by women’s appointments or redistributing privileges among elites.

Protecting citizens is a prerequisite for political stability and legitimacy. Respect for our rights and humanity allows for peaceful deliberation of public demands, neutralization of radical views and creative resolution of community challenges.

If Saudi Arabia respects and values its citizens, it must immediately release the women. That would be an important step to restore public trust in its leadership.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Saudi Arabia is heinously torturing female activists. It must face consequences.

The Post’s View: MBS promised a bullet for Khashoggi. Congress must promise consequences for MBS.

Urooba Jamal: Why my friend Loujain al-Hathloul deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Jamal Khashoggi: What the Arab world needs most is free expression