Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was on Monday, December 28, sentenced to a prison term of five years and eight months by a terrorism court, the Saudi news agency Sabq reported. She was convicted of ‘agitating for change,’ ‘pursuing a foreign agenda’ and ‘using the internet to harm public order.’
Another activist, Mayaa al-Zahrani, received a similar sentence on the same charges, media reports said.
While awarding the sentence, the court suspended two years and 10 months from Loujain al-Hathloul’s prison term on the condition that “she does not commit any crime” within the next three years, and also included the time spent by her in jail so far in the term. This effectively means she could be released in March 2021.
The judge who awarded the sentence to Loujain reportedly said that she had confessed to her crimes without coercion. This is despite the many reports of Loujain being tortured and mistreated by the Saudi authorities, as well as being detained without any charge or trial for long periods of time. In the past, there were also doubts raised on the fairness and impartiality of the trial process that the Saudi regime is forcing her to undergo.
As part of the sentence, the court also handed Loujain a five year-travel ban and gave her 30 days to appeal the verdict against her. The prosecutor can also appeal the verdict. Responding to the sentence, Loujain’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, noted the hypocrisy of the Saudi government, especially crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. In a statement, she added, “Loujain and my parents, who are her lawyers, were given little time to prepare so it is hard to understand how this trial process is a fair one. My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. My sister is the bravest person I know.”
Loujain is one of the many human rights and pro-democracy activists who have been imprisoned and tortured by the Saudi government for advocating for basic human and civil rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion and equal rights for women, among others. Loujain was a campaigner for the repeal of the Saudi male guardianship system for women, and advocated for the right of the country’s women to drive. She was detained while she was driving on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway, following which she was interrogated and imprisoned.
In prison, she was subjected to physical, mental and verbal torture, including electric shocks, physical beatings and threats of sexual abuse and rape. She was prevented from seeing her family or consulting with her lawyers. Loujain was forced to repeatedly launch hunger strikes in order to force the authorities to allow her to see her family and to bring attention to her case internationally. During her appearances in court, she appeared very frail with family members reporting that she was shaking uncontrollably and was speaking in a barely audible voice.
Several human rights organizations reacted to the news of the verdict and sentence with dismay and outrage. The United Nations Human Rights Office, calling it the sentence “deeply troubling”, in a tweet on Monday, urged the Saudi Authorities to release Loujain early as a “matter of urgency”
The human rights group, Human Rights Watch, condemned the verdict, noting that “Saudi Arabia convicting Loujain Hathloul [between] Xmas and New Years shows they want to minimize attention because they are embarrassed over how they treated her, and they should be. This was always a total charade and travesty of justice.”
The Saudi human rights group, ALQST, said that Loujain’s trial was “full of judicial flaws” and that “from the charge sheet and entire evidence relating simply to her peaceful activism, to the deplorable use of the terrorism court and Counter-Terrorism Law, the Saudi authorities are making a mockery of justice, and the international community must call this out.” .