Prominent Saudi female activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been awarded a high-profile European prize owing to her campaigns for women’s human rights in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Hathloul was announced on Monday as the winner of the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in recognition of her fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including her efforts to end a ban on women’s driving.
Named after the former Czech dissident and later president, the prize is awarded annually for civil society action in defense of human rights by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Hathloul, 31, “is one of the leaders of the Saudi feminist movement, having campaigned to end the male guardianship system, as well as the Saudi ban on women driving, and for greater protection for women facing abuse in the Kingdom,” PACE said in a statement.
She was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other Saudi female activists. Her family said the activist experienced torture and sexual harassment in detention.
Last December, a court handed Hathloul a prison term of five years and eight months on alleged charges of terrorism-related crimes, but a partially suspended sentence and time already served led to her early release in February.
However, she is barred from leaving Saudi Arabia and remains on probation, meaning she cannot return to activism or speak her mind without risking re-arrest.
Hathloul was unable to appear via video conference at the award-winning ceremony organized by PACE, but her sister Lina, who lives in Brussels, intervened on her behalf.
“International support is the only way we can expose the injustices in my country and protect the victims,” Lina said as she accepted the prize and its 60,000 euros ($72,000) at a virtual ceremony.
“For years now, the Saudi regime has been trying to tarnish her image, to erase any support for her, and to make her forgotten. But the more time passes, the more Loujain proves to the world how incredibly brave, resilient and attached to her values she is,” she added.
Saudi Arabia overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists on June 24, 2018. However, paradoxically enough, the lifting of the prohibition was followed by a sweeping crackdown on prominent women’s rights activists, who had staunchly advocated for the right to drive.
Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of activists, bloggers, intellectuals and others perceived as political opponents ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the kingdom’s de facto leader in 2017, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations of the crackdown.