The family of prominent human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul will appeal her prison sentence but expressed little hope in the Saudi judicial system, calling the trial a “sham” and “politically motivated”.
On Monday, a Saudi court sentenced al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison on terrorism-related charges and banned her from leaving the country for five years, sparking a torrent of international criticism.
Al-Hathloul, 31, was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other women’s rights activists just weeks before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers, a reform they had long campaigned for.
“The moment [al-Hathloul] saw the verdict, she started crying because… she had been labelled as a terrorist,” her brother Walid al-Hathloul told AFP news agency.
“We are going to be appealing the verdict even though [we] don’t have any hope from the Saudi judicial system.”
Loujain cried when she heard the sentence today. After nearly 3 years of arbitrary detention, torture, solitary confinement – they now sentence her and label her a terrorist. Loujain will appeal the sentence and ask for another investigation regarding torture #FreeLoujain https://t.co/E4msesGqjH
— Lina Alhathloul لينا الهذلول (@LinaAlhathloul) December 28, 2020
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights office described al-Hathloul’s conviction and sentence as “deeply troubling” after she was “arbitrarily” detained.
“We understand early release is possible, and strongly encourage it as matter of urgency,” the organisation said on Twitter.
#SaudiArabia: Conviction and 5yrs 8 month sentence handed down to prominent women’s rights campaigner #LoujainAlHathloul, already arbitrarily detained for 2 ½ years, is also deeply troubling. We understand early release is possible, and strongly encourage it as matter of urgency.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) December 28, 2020
France’s foreign ministry said it reiterated its call for her “quick release”, a view echoed by Germany’s human rights commissioner Barbel Kofler.
“Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Loujain al-Hathloul for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling,” tweeted Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser in the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.
The current US administration of Donald Trump was more subdued, with deputy Department of State spokesman, Cale Brown, tweeting that the US was “concerned”, adding that “we look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021”.
After being tried in Riyadh’s criminal court, al-Hathloul’s trial was transferred last month to the Specialised Criminal Court, or the “anti-terrorism court”, which campaigners say is used to silence critical voices under the cover of fighting “terrorism”.
She was convicted of cooperating with entities criminalised by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism law, inciting regime change and seeking to disrupt public order.
The court suspended two years and 10 months of the sentence “if she committed no crime” within the next three years, the pro-government online outlet Sabq and other media allowed to attend her trial cited the court as saying on Monday.
A motion to appeal can also be filed within a month by the public prosecutor, who Hathloul’s family said sought a 20-year jail term for her.
Another detained woman activist, Maya al-Zahrani, was given an identical sentence for a similar list of charges, local media reported.
Sexual harassment and torture
Earlier this month, the kingdom’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan told AFP that Hathloul was accused of contacting “unfriendly” states and providing classified information, but her family said no evidence to support the allegations had been put forward.
While some detained women activists were provisionally released, al-Hathloul and others remained imprisoned on what rights groups describe as opaque charges.
Pro-government Saudi media branded them as “traitors” and al-Hathloul’s family alleges she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention.
The Saudi court recently dismissed those allegations.
The detention of women activists has cast a renewed spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.