A Saudi court on Monday sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to nearly six years in prison after her conviction in a trial that has been convicted internationally.
The verdict and verdict challenge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with US President-elect Joe Biden, who has criticized Riyadh’s human rights record.
Hathloul, 31, who has been detained with several other women’s rights activists since 2018 after her arrest, will appeal the verdict, her sister said.
She has been accused of trying to change the Saudi political system and harm national security, Saudi newspapers Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat said under comprehensive anti-terrorism laws.
The court suspended two years and ten months of her five years and eight months’ imprisonment – most of which have already been served since their arrest on May 15, 2018 – with a conditional release, said Hathloul’s sister Lina.
She could therefore be released by March 2021, with a return to prison if she commits a crime, the newspapers said.
Hathloul has also been banned from travel for five years, her sister said, adding that Hathloul cried when she was sentenced and was about to appeal.
“My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be condemned for her activism for the very reforms that MBS and the Saudi Kingdom so proudly promote is the ultimate hypocrisy,” Lina said in a statement.
State Department spokesman Cale Brown said the United States was “concerned about reports” of Hathloul’s verdict.
“We have highlighted the importance of free speech and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia in promoting women’s rights. We look forward to her expected release soon in 2021,” he said on Twitter.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s new national security advisor, appeared to reiterate on Twitter that the Biden government plans to raise human rights issues in relations with Riyadh.
Hathloul’s condemnation “for the mere exercise of her universal rights is unfair and worrying,” Sullivan wrote in a tweet. “As we said earlier, the Biden-Harris administration will fight back against human rights abuses wherever they occur.”
United Nations human rights experts have called the charges “false”. The United States Human Rights Bureau said the conviction was “deeply worrying” and called for her urgent release.
According to human rights groups and her family, Hathloul, who campaigned for the right of women to drive and end the kingdom’s male guardianship system, has been ill-treated, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. The Saudi authorities have denied the charges.
In 2019, Hathloul refused to overturn her torture allegations in exchange for an early release, her family said. A court dismissed the allegations last week, citing lack of evidence.
Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat reported that the judge had confessed to Hathloul’s crimes without coercion.
Hathloul’s conviction came nearly three weeks after a Riyadh court jailed US Saudi doctor Walid al-Fitaihi for six years despite US pressure to release him. In one case, activists described this as politically motivated.
Foreign diplomats said their trials were aimed at sending a message domestically and abroad that Saudi Arabia would not give in to pressures on human rights issues.
Riyadh could also use the penalties as a lever for future negotiations with the Biden government, a diplomat said.
Biden has announced that he will forge a closer line with the kingdom, an oil titan and major buyer of American arms, than President Donald Trump, who was a strong supporter of Prince Mohammed and acted as a buffer against international criticism after the murder of a Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Hathloul became famous in 2013 when she publicly advocated women’s driving rights.
Saudi officials said the arrests of women activists were made on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and supporting hostile elements abroad.
London-based Saudi legal group ALQST said another activist, Mayaa al-Zahrani, was also convicted on Monday and received the same verdict as Hathloul. In addition, Nassimah al-Saadah was sentenced to five years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch, and two were suspended in late November.
The Hathloul family published their charges after their case was referred to the specialized criminal court in Riyadh, originally set up to bring terror suspects to justice, but which has been used to prosecute suspected dissidents for the past decade.
The main charges against Hathloul, who served up to 20 years in prison, included attempting to change the Saudi political system, demanding the end of male guardianship, trying to apply for a job in the United States, and the Communication with international rights groups and Saudi activists.
Hathloul was also accused of speaking to foreign diplomats and international media about women’s rights in the Kingdom, including Reuters, who refused to comment.
“The case against Loujain, based solely on their human rights activism, is a travesty of justice and shows the depths they will go to rooting out independent voices,” said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.
The Saudi government’s media office did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)