Written by Raya Chalabi and Marwa Rashad
DUBAI (Reuters) – A Saudi court on Monday sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison in a trial that sparked international condemnation as Riyadh faces new US surveillance, local media reported.
Al-Hathloul, 31, has been detained since 2018 after her arrest with at least 12 other women’s rights activists.
The ruling, reported by Al-Sabeq and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspapers, poses an early challenge to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with US President-elect Joe Biden, who has criticized Riyadh’s record on human rights.
Local media reported that Al-Hathloul is accused of seeking to change the Saudi political system and harm national security. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence – or most of the time her arrest was already spent on May 15, 2018 – with subsequent parole.
Newspapers said that Al-Hathloul could therefore be released at the end of February 2021, with the possibility of her returning to prison if she committed any crime.
United Nations human rights experts described the accusations as “bogus” and, along with prominent human rights groups and representatives in the United States and Europe, called for her release.
Rights groups and her family say Al-Hathloul, who has championed women’s right to drive and end the male guardianship system in the kingdom, has been subjected to mistreatment with electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. The Saudi authorities denied the charges.
The ruling on Al-Hathloul came after nearly three weeks of imprisonment by a court in Riyadh of the Saudi-American doctor, Walid Al-Fitaihi, for six years, despite US pressure to release him in a case described by rights groups as politically motivated.
Foreign diplomats said that the two trials aimed to send a message at home and abroad that Saudi Arabia would not yield to pressure in human rights cases.
One diplomat said Riyadh may also use the camel as leverage in future negotiations with the Biden administration.
Biden said he would take a more assertive stance with the kingdom, the oil giant and the main buyer of US arms, than President Donald Trump, who has been a staunch supporter of Prince Mohammed.
The fare card
Al-Hathloul came to prominence in 2013 when it began public campaigns for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials said that the arrest of the activists was carried out on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and providing support to hostile elements abroad. Some of the female detainees were released while their trials were continuing.
Activist Nasima al-Saada was sentenced to five years in prison, with two suspended, in late November, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Al-Hathloul family revealed their indictment after referring their case to the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which was originally created to try terror suspects but has been used over the past decade to try supposed dissidents.
The main charges against Al-Hathloul, which carry a sentence of up to 20 years, include the following: seeking to change the Saudi political system, calling for an end to male guardianship, attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations, attending digital privacy training, and communicating with foreigners. Other Saudi human rights groups and activists.
Al-Hathloul has also been accused of speaking to foreign diplomats and international media about women’s rights in the kingdom, including Reuters, which declined to comment.
“The case against Loujain, which is based solely on her human rights activism, is a misrepresentation of justice and reveals the depths they will go to to root out independent voices,” said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch. The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
(Coverage by Raya Chalabi and Aziz Al Yaqoubi in Dubai and Marwa Rashad in London; written by Raya Chalabi; Editing by Gareth Jones and Angus MacSwane)