A prominent Saudi Arabian activist who campaigned for the right to drive was sentenced to nearly six years in jail today, despite international criticism of her trial and claims she had been tortured.
Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, was arrested with a dozen other women’s rights campaigners in 2018, even as the Gulf kingdom lifted the ban on women driving and pledged to relax patriarchal male guardianship laws.
A judge in a Saudi terrorism court in Riyadh on Monday sentenced her to five years and eight months on charges related to her activism, including seeking to change the Saudi political system conspiring with foreign governments and harming national security.
The judge insisted that she had confessed to the allegations and rejected Ms Hathloul’s claims that she was tortured with water-boarding, electric shocks and had been threatened with rape after her arrest.
She spent eight months in solitary confinement last year and in October went on hunger strike in protest at her treatment.
However, the court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, which Ms Hathloul’s sister Lina said could see her released early next year, due to time already spent behind bars.
“A suspension… in addition to time already served, would see her release in approximately two months,” she said, adding that her sister would be barred from travelling abroad for five years. “The public prosecutor and Loujain can still appeal.”
Having first been arrested for flouting the driving ban in 2014, Ms Hathloul and other women started campaigning for greater rights on social media, posting videos of themselves driving and organising petitions attracting thousands of signatures.
However, in March 2018 she was “kidnapped” in the United Arab Emirates and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, her family claims. Two months later she was arrested and charged with “attempting to destabilise the kingdom”, along with fellow activists Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani.
Ms Hathloul’s husband, Fahad al-Butairi, a Saudi stand-up comedian, was also arrested, having been returned to the Kingdom from Jordan.
Human rights groups have condemned the campaigners’ prosecutions as ludicrous. Their cases have come to highlight Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's determination to crack down on any dissent in his country, despite lifting the ban on women driving and pledging further reforms allowing them to work and travel without the permission of a man.
Ms Hathloul’s trial began last month (November) after a series of delays and international calls for her release.
Prosecutors at the Specialised Criminal Court previously submitted social media messages that Ms Hathloul had made on Twitter and Instagram as evidence of her crimes.
She was also accused of joining a group on the messaging app Telegram where she discussed human rights, liaising with another activist over a "campaign for a new constitution", and receiving daily expenses of £45 from foreign organisations while attending international conferences to speak about the situation of women in Saudi Arabia.
Lucy Rae, of Grant Liberty, the human rights group, called the conviction “an international outrage”.
“Loujain is a peaceful campaigner for the basic freedoms the rest of the world takes for granted. In response she has been imprisoned, tortured and abused by the Saudi authorities – yet they call her the terrorist,” she said.
“Loujain must be released, and as Joe Biden has said, it’s time for the rest of the world to treat Saudi Arabia as the Pariah it is until it ends these sickening abuses.”