Saudi court sentences prominent female activist to nearly six years

A prominent Saudi women’s rights activist has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison by an anti-terrorism court in a high-profile case that has drawn widespread international criticism and intensified scrutiny on the kingdom’s human rights record.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right for women to drive, was charged with incitement to change the absolute monarchy’s political system, serving a foreign agenda and co-operating with individuals and entities accused of violating the kingdom’s anti-terrorism act, according to Saudi state-affiliated media.

Ms Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months, effective from the date of her arrest in May 2018, with two years and 10 months suspended, meaning she could be released in a few months, said Lina al-Hathloul, her sister. She will be banned from travel for five years, her sister wrote on Twitter.

The sentencing comes as US president-elect Joe Biden is expected to put greater scrutiny on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic rule, under which hundreds of royals, businessmen, activists, bloggers and academics have been jailed.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s pick to be national security adviser, on Monday said Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Ms Hathloul “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.”

“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he wrote on Twitter.

In October, Mr Biden said his administration would “reassess” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia as he used the second anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the veteran journalist, to pledge that human rights would be a priority “even with our closest security partners”.

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi © Hasan Jamali/AP

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, has spearheaded sweeping changes in recent years as he has pledged to modernise the ultra-conservative kingdom and reform its oil-dependent economy.

But the easing of social restrictions under his watch, including allowing women to drive and live independently and marry without the approval of male guardians, has been accompanied by waves of crackdowns against any hint of dissent.

The murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 triggered Riyadh’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades. But President Donald Trump stood by Prince Mohammed and was accused by activists of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The paradox of Prince Mohammed’s rule was highlighted by the arrest of Ms Hathloul, 31, and more than 10 other female activists who had also campaigned for the lifting of a decades-old ban on women driving. They were detained just weeks before the prohibition was lifted in what was widely interpreted as a signal from the authorities that all forms of activism would be quashed.

Ms Hathloul’s family alleged that she had been tortured while she was detained, but a court last week cleared the authorities, saying there was no evidence to support the claims.

Her case was transferred to a court that typically hears terrorism cases last month.

Alqst, a London-based human rights organisation, said it was a “travesty of justice” that Ms Hathloul was “sentenced under the counter-terrorism law, based on charges relating solely to her peaceful activism”. It added that her trial “has been flawed from start to finish”.

Human rights groups say scores of activists remain in prison. This month, a court sentenced Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi-US doctor, to six years in jail on what Human Rights Watch described as “vague charges mostly tied to his peaceful political views and expression”.

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