Fellow human rights defenders and family on Monday slammed the conviction of Loujain al-Hathloul by a terrorism court in Saudi Arabia and reiterated demands for the immediate, unconditional release of the 31-year-old leader in the country’s movement to allow women to drive.
Al-Hathloul, who has been detained since May 2018, was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison. With credit for time served and the judge’s decision to suspend two years and 10 months of her sentence, she could be released in about two months. Her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, said she will also be subjected to a five-year travel ban.
“Loujain cried when she heard the sentence today,” Lina al-Hathloul tweeted Monday. “After nearly three 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.”
To hear this news of Loujain’s tears is beyond heartbreaking. She has fought for so long for so many people and is our duty to never give up on fighting for her.
— Uma Mishra #BlackLivesMatter #FreeSaudiActivists (@umajmishra) December 28, 2020
As the Associated Press reported:
Al-Hathloul was found guilty and sentenced to five years and eight months by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism court on charges 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, according to state-linked Saudi news site Sabq. The charges all come under the country’s broadly worded counterterrorism law.
…Al-Hathloul rejected an offer to rescind her allegations of torture in exchange for early release, according to her family. A court recently dismissed her allegations, citing a lack of evidence.
In a statement, Lina al-Hathloul said that “Loujain stands for any citizen who speaks out with love for their country and wants the best for their country.”
Human rights advocates worldwide on Monday expressed solidarity with the al-Hathloul family, drew attention to the human rights record of the Saudi regime, and took aim at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known globally as MBS.
Loujain al-Hathloul, who has a month to appeal the verdict, was arrested shortly before the kingdom gave women the right to drive in 2018. The following year, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers approved a royal decree put forth by the crown prince to relax some restrictions on women under the kingdom’s “guardianship” system.
“If the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was genuinely concerned with women’s rights, Loujain would not have been thrown in jail and subjected to this sort of abuse. It only proves how performative his ‘reforms’ were,” declared Danaka Katovich, the Yemen campaign coordinator for the women-led peace group CodePink.
We are horrified that @LoujainHathloul has been sentenced to 5 years and 8 months in prison for the “crime” of peaceful activism. So much for Saudi Arabia’s “reforms” under MbS. #FreeLoujain immediately!
— CODEPINK (@codepink) December 28, 2020
CodePink national co-director Ariel Gold said that “we stand with the al-Hathloul family and their friends who have not given up, and continue to call on the Saudi government to free Loujain.”
“Around the same time as Loujain’s sentencing, the Trump administration notified Congress of its intent to sell Saudi Arabia $478 million in weapons,” Gold added. “The U.S.’s friendly relationship with the brutal misogynistic government of Saudi Arabia is shameful. We hope the Biden administration will block this latest weapons deal and act for justice for Loujain and all Saudi women.”
President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reevaluate U.S.-Saudi relations upon taking office next month. President Donald Trump’s administration has maintained a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia’s leadership, particularly MBS, despite alarm over the kingdom’s human rights record, which ramped up in the wake of the brutal 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
PEN America has demanded both accountability for Khashoggi’s murder and al-Hathloul’s release. Last year, the group honored al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Eman Al-Nafjan with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award—praising “these gutsy women” for challenging “one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments.”
Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, said Monday that “the conviction of Loujain Al-Hathloul is a blatant attack on the most basic human rights of all people living in Saudi Arabia, and a special insult against all those who have fought for women’s rights in the kingdom.”
“While we are relieved, for her and her family’s sake, that the sentence was not longer, it does not make her conviction any less horrifying, and the prospect of continued constraints on her freedom after release is completely unacceptable,” she continued. “The charges levied against her are bogus, and are clearly a retaliatory attempt to silence one of the kingdom’s most influential female voices.”
Al-Hathloul was detained for using her voice to advocate a policy change granting women the right to drive, now legal for more than two years. In fact, the Saudi leadership now takes credit for reforms that al-Hathloul demanded, even as they punish her for the key role that she and other activists have played in spurring social and legal change. Saudi authorities show their cards by equating al-Hathloul’s case with a crime of national security; they recognize that freedom of expression is a powerful driver of change and independent thought—and they see that as a threat.
While the Saudi government has reformed the law, they have not released al-Hathloul. Instead, in clear retaliation for her dissent, they have abused al-Hathloul, jailed her in the most dire conditions, denied her contact with the outside world, and doubled down on her detention. Her absurd conviction is further evidence that the Saudi Arabian government continues to be one of the most egregious human rights abusers in the world. We will be watching to ensure Saudi authorities adhere to this timeline for al-Hathloul’s release, but we also continue to call for this unjust sentence to be overturned and for al-Hathloul to be unconditionally and immediately released.
Supporters of the activist took to social media to condemn her sentence, using the hashtag #FreeLoujain.
Authorities chose to convict Loujain over the holidays hoping the world won’t notice their shameful treatment of a prominent women’s rights activist. The case against her reveals the depths to which they will go to root out independent voices. pic.twitter.com/ZZiuPcmwOv
— Hiba Zayadin (@HZayadin) December 28, 2020
#SaudiArabia: Conviction and 5yrs 8 month sentence handed down to prominent women’s rights campaigner #LoujainAlHathloul, already arbitrarily detained for 2 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
All people deserve access to their basic rights and humanity, regardless of religion or geography. #FreeLoujain and all prisoners of conscience.
— Oslo Women’s Rights Initiative (@oslOWRI) December 28, 2020
The sentencing came after al-Hathloul’s case was transferred last month to Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf, said at the time that “this is yet another sign that Saudi Arabia’s claims of reform on human rights are a farce.”
“With Saudi Arabia’s human rights record back in the spotlight as it hosts the G20 this year, the Saudi authorities could have decided to end the two-year nightmare for brave human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul,” Maalouf added. “Instead, in a disturbing move, they transferred her case to the SCC; an institution used to silence dissent and notorious for issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials.”
This post was originally published on Radio Free.