Saudi Arabia: NGOs renew call for lifting of the illegal travel ban on women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul

May 13, 2024

Loujain al-Hathloul. © Courtesy of ALQST for Human Rights.

The undersigned organisations call on Saudi Arabia’s authorities to immediately lift the illegal travel ban imposed on woman human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul. A court-imposed ban on her travelling abroad expired six months ago today, but since then she has been under an arbitrary travel ban with no expiry date, in violation of both international human rights law and the kingdom’s own legislation.

Al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most celebrated advocates for women’s rights, was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for over 1,000 days for her human rights activism before being conditionally released from prison on 10 February 2021. Her sentence imposed heavy restrictions following her release, including a period of probation and a travel ban lasting two years and ten months, ending on 13 November 2023. However, when she attempted to travel abroad in February 2024, al-Hathloul was told at the border that she remained under a permanent travel ban.

Many prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia who have been conditionally released in recent years continue to face harsh restrictions, including lengthy travel bans. These are often applied in advance as part of their judicial sentence, usually for the same additional length of time as the prison term itself. This is already in contravention of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”. However, the authorities also impose “unofficial” travel bans without any notification of a legal justification, judicial ruling or official decision behind them. The affected individuals, like al-Hathloul, often first learn of them only when attempting to leave the kingdom, whether by air or by crossing a land border. Since these bans are unofficial and lack any legal basis, there is no way to formally appeal against them or apply to have them lifted.

Travel bans have serious consequences for the victims’ lives, preventing them from pursuing personal and professional goals abroad, accessing specialist healthcare, or visiting family members outside the country. This in turn can have a profound impact on the mental and emotional well-being of both the individuals directly affected and their families. 

The Saudi authorities have also been making repeated and increasing use of arbitrary travel bans on family members of activists, including the rest of the al-Hathloul family in Saudi Arabia, apparently as a form of collective punishment but also to further deter individuals from engaging in human rights work, for the sake of not only their own safety but also that of their relatives. Appeals to the official Saudi Human Rights Commission (SHRC) from Saudi nationals living abroad to help lift arbitrary travel bans on their relatives inside the kingdom have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears.

Arbitrary travel bans are in direct contravention of international law, and are a blatant violation of the right to freedom of movement enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (Article 21). They are also in violation of Saudi Arabia’s own legal framework, according to which no person may be barred from travelling except by a judicial ruling or a decision issued by the Minister of Interior or the President of State Security, and then only for specific security-related reasons (typically for cases relating to financial crimes, child custody or ongoing criminal investigations) and for a specific period of time.

ALQST’s Head of Monitoring and Advocacy Lina al-Hathloul comments: “Former prisoners who, like my sister Loujain, have been released but remain barred from travelling are not yet free but are still prisoners inside Saudi Arabia – and to prevent our relatives from travelling, with absolutely no justification, is both illegal and unpardonably cruel.” 

We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately stop this unlawful practice and to lift the unofficial travel bans imposed arbitrarily on Loujain al-Hathloul, her family and other family members of activists, as well as all the travel bans that have been imposed by the courts on both current and former prisoners of conscience. The authorities must respect and protect the internationally recognised right to freedom of movement. 

Signatories: 

  • ALQST for Human Rights 
  • DAWN
  • European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR)
  • Femena
  • FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
  • Freedom House
  • Freedom Now
  • Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
  • International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  • MENA Rights Group
  • Middle East Democracy Center (MEDC)
  • PEN America
  • The Václav Havel Library
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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