A Saudi court sentenced activist Loujain al-Hathoul, who gained prominence for advocating women’s rights in the conservative kingdom, to nearly six years in prison on terrorism-related charges—in a case that has garnered intense Western criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record.
Ms. Hathloul was picked up in May 2018 just as Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive, something she and other detained activists had long pushed for. She was charged with aiding an enemy country and destabilizing the Saudi regime, as well as speaking with foreign journalists and diplomats, contacting Saudi dissidents living abroad and applying for a job at the United Nations.
The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, a tribunal set up in 2008 to try al Qaeda suspects, sentenced her Monday to five years and eight months in jail, starting from the date of her arrest, according to her family and people familiar with the case. A reduction for time served means she will likely be released in March on three years’ probation, with a five-year travel ban.
Ms. Hathloul, who has been kept largely in solitary confinement and held a two-week hunger strike in November to protest her prison conditions, has appeared physically weak in court, her body shaking and voice faint. She has previously testified to torture by her captors, including electrocution, lashing and sexual harassment, claims the Saudi judiciary has repeatedly denied.
“Loujain cried when she heard the sentence today,” her sister Lina al-Hathloul said in a tweet. “After nearly 3 years of arbitrary detention, torture, solitary confinement—they now sentence her and label her a terrorist.”
Her sister said Ms. Hathloul will appeal the sentence and ask for another investigation into her allegations of torture, which she previously said was perpetrated by former Saudi royal adviser Saud al-Qahtani.
The Saudi media ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday’s ruling.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, has accused women’s rights activists of espionage on behalf of regional rivals Qatar and Iran. Earlier in December, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Ms. Hathloul had allegedly passed classified information to unfriendly states. The two officials have denied that Ms. Hathloul’s activism was the reason for her detention.
However, Saudi Arabia hasn’t made public any evidence to support those claims. Ms. Hathloul’s family said the only evidence presented against her in court, which was closed to foreign journalists and diplomats, were tweets about women driving and videos of her discussing male guardianship, a system requiring Saudi women to obtain permission from a male relative for decisions such as traveling abroad.
The U.N. Human Rights office in a tweet called the sentencing for Ms. Hathloul deeply troubling. “We understand early release is possible, and strongly encourage it as matter of urgency.”
Thirty-one-year-old Ms. Hathloul had been facing up to 20 years in prison. She was initially arraigned in a criminal court but the case was unexpectedly transferred in November to the terrorism court, which has been used since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 to prosecute human-rights activists and perceived dissidents.
The ultimately lighter sentence and apparent rush to wrap up the case—at least six sessions were convened in the past 2-1/2 weeks—suggest an effort to remove a potential source of conflict with the new U.S. administration. Two Saudi royal advisers said the reduced sentence came at the behest of Prince Mohammed, who is seeking to alleviate pressure from Washington.
Authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment. Saudi officials maintain that the kingdom’s judiciary is independent.
While President Trump stood by Prince Mohammed in the face of accusations that he ordered the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some Congress members condemned him. The prince denies involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
In a possible preview of a shift in Washington’s approach to Riyadh, Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) criticized Republicans for overlooking the sort of human rights violations there that they regularly condemn in other countries.
“Saudi Arabia could have ended the torture and political persecution of Loujain al-Hathloul as a goodwill gesture to the incoming Biden Administration,” he tweeted. “Instead, they sent her to jail for 6 years because she asked for women to be allowed to drive.”
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and protect the rights of activists around the world as he prepares to take office in January. Saudi Arabia congratulated Mr. Biden on his election victory, but remains concerned about his plans to return to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran.
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, called Ms. Hathloul’s sentencing unjust and troubling. “As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he tweeted.
Yet Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said releasing Ms. Hathloul could still ease pressure from the incoming administration while sending a message domestically that public criticism remains unacceptable.
He said the ruling was “a travesty of justice” but could have been a lot worse. Ms. Hathloul’s life will be circumscribed by the terms of her release and she will have to stay quiet for years to avoid further punishment, he added.
Saudi Arabia has previously resisted Western calls to release Ms. Hathloul, who has been lionized by human rights groups in Europe and the U.S., and received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the wake of the killing of Mr. Khashoggi by government operatives in Istanbul, her case has kept a negative light on the kingdom, hindering efforts to attract foreign investments needed to diversify an oil-dependent economy.
Her detention is part of a broader crackdown under Prince Mohammed, who has locked up clerics and intellectuals from across the political spectrum, even as he seeks to liberalize the economy and relax Saudi Arabia’s staid social norms. Other women’s rights activists detained around the same time have been quietly sentenced or released on bail, their cases pending for over a year.
Another activist, Mayaa al-Zahrani, who was arrested after tweeting in support of a third activist, also received the same sentence as Ms. Hathloul in court Monday, according to local news site Sabq whose reporter attended the hearing.
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