Three women's rights activists on trial in Saudi Arabia this week because of their efforts to expand human rights in the infamously oppressive kingdom are this year's recipients of an award "designed to honor a writer imprisoned for his or her work."
"We are proud to honor 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."
—Suzanne Nossel, PEN America
PEN America, which works to defend free expression globally through the advancement of literature and human rights, announced Thursday that imprisoned writers Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan will be honored with the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award at the PEN America Literary Gala in May.
"These gutsy women have challenged one of the world's most notoriously misogynist governments," PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement, "inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of medieval bondage that has no place in the 21st century."
"We are proud to honor these drivers of change," Nossel added, "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."
— Karin D Karlekar (@karinkarlekar) March 14, 2019
International press freedom groups including the Committee to Project Journalists and Reporters Without Borders—also known as Reporters Sans Frontieres—have repeatedly ranked Saudi Arabia as one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism.
While human rights defenders have long decried the Saudi monarchy's treatment of women and writers, the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year sparked international outrage and shone a spotlight on the regime's long track record of silencing critics.
The Trump administration has maintained a cozy relationship with the regime in the wake of Khashoggi's killing, despite the CIA's conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) likely ordered his assassination. However, world leaders, U.S. lawmakers, and activists have pointed to the incident as evidence that the kingdom has made minimal progress on human rights as MBS has accumulated power.
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"The fleeting hope that generational transition in the Saudi leadership would open the door toward greater respect for individual rights and international law has collapsed entirely," Nossel said, "with individuals paying the highest price as the government resorts to rank barbarism as a blunt means to suppress and deter dissent."
Abdulaziz, Al-Hathloul, and Al-Nafjan are among those who have been subjected to the regime's brutal reaction to criticism. Along with several other Saudi women's rights activists, they appeared before a criminal court in Riyadh, the country's capital city, on Wednesday after being arrested last year shortly before the monarchy lifted a ban on women driving.
The activists, who have spoken out against the driving ban and Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system, are reportedly being charged for undermining state security by contacting international advocacy organizations and media outlets.
Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid said in a statement on Thursday that the charges "are the latest example of the Saudi authorities abusing legislation and the justice system to silence peaceful activists and deter them from working on the human rights situation in the country."
Criminalizing and prosecuting these activists for speaking to the media and international organizations is now a dangerous escalation in the authorities’ repression #SaudiArabia
— Samah Hadid سماح (@samahhadid) March 14, 2019
The imprisoned activists, according to Hadid, "have not only been smeared in state-aligned media for their peaceful human rights work, but have also endured horrendous physical and psychological suffering during their detention."
Denouncing the trial as "yet another stain on the Saudi authorities' appalling human rights record," Hadid called on Saudi authorities "to drop these outrageous charges and release the women activists immediately and unconditionally."