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Three detained Saudi women activists receive PEN Freedom award

French Amnesty activists stage a protest against the women activists' detention [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 March, 2019

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Three Saudi women activists arrested last year received the PEN Freedom to Write Award a day after their 'show trials' began in Riyadh.

Three prominent Saudi women's rights activists who have been detained by Riyadh were awarded by PEN America on Thursday due to their human rights work in the kingdom.

Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman al-Nafjan were announced as winners of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, the literary and human rights organisation announced Thursday, a day after their "show trialsbegan in Riyadh.

"We are proud to honour these drivers of change for their fearless words and actions, and to send a strong signal that international pressure on the Saudi kingdom to respect dissent and adhere to international norms of free expression will not relent," said Suzanne Nossel, PEN America Chief Executive Officer.

They were among a dozen activists arrested in May and June 2018 just as the government announced it was lifting a decades-long ban on women drivers as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's so-called modernising reforms.

Abdulaziz, Hathloul, and Nafjan have openly opposed government restrictions, as well as the a ban on women leaving the kingdom without the permission of a male guardian.

After being held for nearly a year without charge and without access to legal representation, ten Saudi women activists, the prize winners among them, appeared in court behind closed doors on Wednesday.

UK-based Saudi rights activist Yahya Assiri said their charges "had nothing to do with the law" and that the proceedings could be considered a show trial.

The detained activists held in Dhahban prison have faced sexual harassment and torture during interrogation, Amnesty International reported in November.

Amnesty cited three separate testimonies, repeated electrocution and flogging, leaving some of them unable to stand or walk.

At least one activist was made to hang from a ceiling and another detained woman was sexually harassed by interrogators wearing face masks.

Key writings

The PEN award was established in 1987 and is given to a writer or a group of writers targeted for free expression. The organisation highlighted key writings from the three awardees.

In a letter, Nouf Abdulaziz wrote and gave to a friend to be published in the event of her arrest, she wrote: "I do not know of any crime I committed other than feeling for every wretched and oppressed person in my society".

PEN also highlighted the bog of Loujain Al-Hathloul. "We have to all realise that criticising some phenomena in our home country does not equate to hating it, wishing evil upon it nor is it an attempt to shake its balance, it's the total opposite," she wrote in response to those criticising her activist work.

Twenty-nine year old Hathloul was first held in 2014 for attempting to drive from neighbouring UAE to Saudi Arabia.

In an article for Foreign Policy entitled "What do Saudi Women Want?" Iman al-Nafjan delves into the misconception that all Saudi women desire increased liberties.

"Yet I am happy to say that I am one of many women hungry for self-determination - women who have realized that though liberty and rights come with responsibility, it also gives them and their daughters the autonomy to pursue their happiness," she wrote.

The PEN award comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of Saudi Arabia, since the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last fall.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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