A renowned Saudi women’s rights activist was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison on Monday following three long years of pre-trial detention. A Saudi Arabian court found 31-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul guilty of “agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order and cooperating with individuals and entities that have committed crimes under anti-terror laws” under what the Associated Press describes as a “vague and broadly worded counterterrorism law.”
Al-Hathloul is an outspoken advocate of women’s freedom of movement and gained prominence for pushing for a woman’s right to drive, a right which women were denied in the kingdom for decades. In May 2018, al-Hathloul and several other activists were detained by the Saudi government, mere weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted its ban.
But her three-year imprisonment didn’t silence her; she launched hunger strikes spoke out against alleged abuses occurring inside the prison where she has been held. NBC News reports that al-Hathloul and other women say their imprisonment has been marked by sexual assault, solitary confinement, and torture in the form of electric shock and whips. Saudi Arabia has denied these allegations and even offered al-Hathloul a reduced sentence in exchange for rescinding her allegations. She rejected it.
Still, al-Hathloul may benefit from a reduced sentence regardless: two years and 10 months of her sentence have been suspended, and in a tweet, al-Hathloul’s sister said she may be released in as little as two months. After her release, however, al-Hathloul is subject to a five-year travel ban and three years probation.
Saudi Arabia denies that al-Hathloul was detained for advocating a woman’s right to drive, but they certainly threw the book at her.
From The Guardian:
The original charge sheet included meeting British and other European diplomats, as well as applying for a job at the United Nations, and using her arrest in her CV. She was also accused of speaking to foreign press agencies and international human rights groups.
Other charges included joining a group on the messaging app Telegram, where she discussed human rights and a new constitution, liaising with the human rights defender Khaled al-Omair and receiving daily expenses of €50 from foreign organisations when attending international conferences to speak about women in Saudi Arabia.
Other alleged offences involve tweets about her drive from UAE into Saudi Arabia and documents found on her laptop including a pdf file of the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. She was also accused of communicating with European embassies about her case at the time the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was due to visit those countries.
At the last minute, on 10 December, the Saudis dropped charges that included her having been in contact with British, EU and Dutch embassies, possibly because all three are regarded as friendly powers and their involvement in the case might prompt higher levels of protest.
The New York Times reports that al-Hathloul’s family believed she would receive more lenient punishment due to the “impending arrival” of President-elect Biden, who has promised tougher action against Saudi Arabia and their human rights violations. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case: Saudi government decided to bump her case up to the Specialized Criminal Court, which handles terrorism cases. Of all the women’s rights activists currently facing trial and prison time for their work, al-Hathloul is the only one to have been referred to such a court. This decision was conveniently made only after the kingdom hosted the G20 summit in November.
The al-Hathloul case emphasizes the travails of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. A variety of reforms were promised under King Salman’s takeover in 2017, but the results range from mixed to downright egregious. Al-Hathloul might be released from prison sooner rather than later, but there are still countless women in the kingdom who remain surveilled and imprisoned for fighting for the most basic of privileges.