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'Faint and shaky' Loujain al-Hathloul transferred to Saudi terrorism court

Family warns that women's rights activist looks visibly weak after more than two years in jail
Undated photograph released on 6 August 2019 on Facebook page of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul shows her at undisclosed location (AFP)

Imprisoned Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been transferred to a terrorism court for trial, as her family warned that she looked visibly weak.

Hathloul, 31, was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other women activists just weeks before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers.

The activist's sister, Lina Hathloul, wrote on Twitter that her case had been "transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court (or) the terrorism court".

"She looked weak in court, her body was shaking uncontrollably and her voice was faint and shaky."

Despite her frail health, the activist read out her four-page defence to the judge, her other sister Alia al-Hathloul said on Twitter.

Hathloul's siblings are based outside the kingdom, and they did not specify the source of their information.

Since March 2019, Hathloul's case had come under Riyadh's criminal court, where sessions were closed to diplomats and journalists, her family and campaigners said.

Riyadh's Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) was established in 2008 to handle terrorism-related cases, but has been widely used to try political prisoners.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International said the secretive SCC was being used to silence critical voices, including clerics and rights activists, under the cover of fighting terrorism.

On Tuesday, the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee criticised Hathloul's continuing imprisonment:

There was no immediate comment on the development from authorities in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that has long faced international criticism for its human rights record.

While some women activists have been provisionally released, Hathloul and others remain in detention on what rights groups describe as opaque charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and activist groups.

The pro-government Saudi media has branded Hathloul and others as "traitors", and her family alleges she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention.

Saudi authorities vigorously deny the charges.

The detention of women activists has cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, which has also faced intense global criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.

Hathloul began a hunger strike in prison on 26 October to demand regular contact with her family, her siblings said. 

Amnesty International said on Wednesday that Hathloul had ended the strike two weeks later.

"She was being woken up by the guards every two hours, day and night, as a brutal tactic to break her," Amnesty said on Twitter. "Yet, she is far from broken."