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Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi women's rights campaigner, has case transferred to terror court

"They're criminalizing activism," sister Lina al-Hathloul said. "It's extremely stressful to never know what your own government can do to you."
Image: A projection on the Louvre Museum in Paris
A projection on the Louvre Museum in Paris by Amnesty International depicting jailed Loujain al-Hathloul, center.Thomas Coex / AFP - Getty Images

One of Saudi Arabia's most prominent women's rights campaigners, Loujain al-Hathloul, shook uncontrollably and spoke in an uncharacteristically faint voice during a rare court appearance this week, a family member told NBC News on Thursday.

Loujain al-Hathloul's sister, Lina al-Hathloul, told NBC News by telephone from Berlin that the siblings' parents had witnessed the hearing in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday.

Loujain, 31, was told during the hearing that her case would be transferred to the country's Specialized Criminal Court, which deals with terrorism cases, Lina said. It was her sister's first court appearance since March last year, she added.

Lynn Maalouf, deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at London-based rights campaigner Amnesty International, called the court transfer "a disturbing move." The Specialized Criminal Court was "notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials," she said in a statement.

Saudi authorities did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment. NBC News was not able to independently confirm the details of Loujain's appearance and health.

"They're criminalizing activism," Lina said of Saudi authorities. "It's extremely stressful to never know what your own government can do to you."

Diplomats from a number of states were denied entry at the courthouse under the "pretext" of Covid-19 regulations, according to Amnesty.

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Loujain, who rose to prominence when she advocated for women's right to drive, had been on hunger strike for two weeks since October 26, her sister said. She was among a dozen other female campaigners to be arrested in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia ended a decades-long ban on women driving.

Other dissidents, including cleric Salman al-Awda, who called on the country's rulers to be more responsive to the population's desires for reform, have also stood trial in the country's anti-terror court.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said that at least three jailed women's rights activists, including Loujain, have been held in solitary confinement and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied the allegations.

Officials have not made public the specific charges against Loujain, but last year the Saudi state news agency SPA, said Hathloul and other detained women were being charged with trying to undermine security, stability and national unity.

Image: Demonstrators from Amnesty International protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy on International Women's day in Paris
Demonstrators from Amnesty International stage a protest on International Women's day in 2019 to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the Saudi embassy in Paris, France.Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Earlier this month, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir told the BBC in an interview that the country had an independent judiciary and would "not allow people to lecture us."

"Loujain al-Hathloul was detained because of issues relating to national security, dealing with foreign entities, supporting entities hostile to Saudi Arabia — it has nothing to do with advocating for women's rights to drive," Al-Jubeir said.

"The courts will decide what her fate will be," he added.

The Gulf kingdom will likely face greater scrutiny over its human rights record following the election defeat of President Donald Trump, who cultivated a close relationship with de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to "reassess" the U.S. relationship with the oil-rich nation and described Saudi as a "pariah" for its human rights record, signaling a firmer line.

Under the crown prince, Riyadh has undertaken bold social reforms including chipping away at the "guardianship" system that requires women to obtain a male relative's permission to travel and work outside the home. He also relaxed social rules for cinemas and curbed the powers of religious police.

But the reforms have been accompanied by crackdowns on political dissent and a protracted war in neighboring Yemen, fostering a major humanitarian crisis.

The murder of Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, slain in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, also horrified many around the world and tarnished the country's international standing.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.