A Saudi Arabia court has sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison. She has been charged under the country’s broad counter-terrorism laws for undermining national security and trying to change the political system of the country, a Reuters report said.
The 31-year-old has been held since 2018 after she was arrested along with several other women’s rights activists.
Following the verdict, her sister Lina al-Hathloul tweeted: “Loujain cried when she heard the sentence today. After nearly three years of arbitrary detention, torture, solitary confinement – they now sentence her and label her a terrorist. Loujain will appeal the sentence and ask for another investigation regarding torture”.
The court, however, suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, most already served by her since her arrest. Hence the activist could be released by March 2021, with a possibility of a return to prison if she commits any crime, Saudi newspapers Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat said.
Who is al-Hathloul?
The activist rose to prominence in 2013 when she started campaigning for women’s right to drive in the country. In 2014, she was arrested for the first time when she attempted to drive across the border from the UAE where she had a valid driving licence.
She spent 73 days at a detention facility, an experience she said helped her campaign against the kingdom’s “Wilayah” male guardianship system. In 2016, she was among the 14,000 signatories who petitioned the king calling for an end to the system.
Only in August last year, Saudi Arabia allowed women to travel abroad without obtaining permission from a male guardian, apply for a passport and also register their marriage or divorce.
What does the verdict mean
The sentencing is expected to pose a challenge to the relations between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President-elect Joe Biden.
The US is “concerned by reports” of al- Hathloul’s sentence, state department spokesperson Cale Brown said.
He tweeted: “We’ve emphasized the importance of free expression and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia as it advances women’s rights. We look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021.”
Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared to reaffirm on Twitter that the incoming administration plans to elevate human rights issues in relations with Riyadh.
He tweeted saying the sentencing “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling”. “As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he added.
UN human rights experts have also called the charges “spurious”, adding the conviction was “deeply troubling” and called for her urgent release.