Saudi court slams internationally criticized jail term for iconic female activist

Screenshot from a France24 YouTube video showing Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

Prominent Saudi human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul, whose detention since 2018 had stoked global criticism, was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on December 28 by the kingdom’s notorious terrorism court in an alarming development to her years-long fight for freedom.

According to her sister, Lina, Loujain should be released by March 2021, having already served the majority of her sentence as pre-trial detention, as she shares in a tweet:

Lina also mentioned in another tweet that her sister Loujain “cried when she heard the sentence today”, and that she “will appeal the sentence and ask for another investigation regarding torture”.

According to local press citing the court's ruling, 31-year-old Loujain was found guilty of “committing acts criminalized under Article 43 of the Law on Combating Terrorism Crimes“, including engaging with foreign, hostile entities, and using the internet to serve and support an external agenda inside the kingdom, with the aim of harming public order

Loujain's sentence comes after a rushed trial deemed flawed by international human rights groups. Although the sentence is down from the maximum jail term of up to 20 years which the public prosecutor demanded on December 17, it is expected to draw added condemnation of the kingdom which is already grappling with a grim record of human rights violations, both within its territories and beyond. 

Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, tweeted:

Human Rights Watch's Executive Director Kenneth Roth reacted by saying:

Loujain has been at the forefront of campaigns demanding women’s right to drive and is a leading figure in the calls to put an end to the male guardianship system which treats Saudi women as second-class citizens.

Observers have opined that the shorter sentence is a reflection of the anticipated changes in leadership in Washington DC. Donald Trump's administration remains a staunch supporter of Saudi's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who is commonly known by his initials – MBS, and has turned a blind eye to the harrowing human rights record that quickly became associated with the prince.

US president-elect Joe Biden has stated his administration will be taking a less lenient position towards Riyadh's human rights abuses, a stand which was reiterated following Loujain's sentence by his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan:

In May 2018, Loujain was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates and, along with other female activists, was detained for months before the coming into effect of a breakthrough royal decree, which they had long campaigned for, that allowed women to drive. After her extradition to the Saudi kingdom, Hathloul remained in pre-trial detention, with alleged periods of solitary confinement, a suspension of family visits, and torture. She had resorted to staging a hunger strike in order to see her family.

It was only on 24 November that her family was told that her long-delayed trial was to begin the following day, giving her parents, who are her legal representatives, only one day to prepare. On November 25, Loujain's case was referred from criminal court to the Specialised Criminal Court on accusations of harming national security through cooperating with foreign entities.

Since it began a month ago, the trial had garnered a lot of criticism.

Having become a symbol for political prisoners in the oil-rich kingdom, Hathloul's incarceration had cast global doubt over the sincerity of Riyadh's rapid social, cultural and economic reforms, led by MBS. In fact, global solidarity with Hathloul and her female colleagues, along with the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi which is believed to have been ordered by MBS, and the Saudi role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, have all tarnished the young prince's image and increased pressure on Riyadh’s Western allies to re-evaluate ties with the kingdom.

Director of Advocacy at @BIRDBahrain_ Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei tweeted:

Hathloul had told her family she was subjected to electric shocks, whippings, and sexual harassment, and her family also alleges that that she was offered freedom if she agreed to say she was not tortured.

Calls for a transparent and unbiased investigation into Hathloul's claim of abuse and torture have fallen on deaf ears. The judge's denial of Loujain's claims of torture triggered hashtag #Loujain_Doesn't_Lie on Twitter last week,  that brought together sympathizers who defended her claim.

Another female Saudi activist, Mayaa al-Zahrani received the same sentence as Loujain's.


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