A court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison for alleged terrorism-related crimes as a crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against rights campaigners and intellectuals widens in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The Saudi pro-government Sabq online newspaper reported that the so-called Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in the capital, Riyadh, issued the verdict against the 31-year-old prominent activist on Monday after she was convicted of “various activities prohibited by the [kingdom's] anti-terrorism law.”
The report added that the court suspended two years and 10 months of the sentence “if she does not commit any crime” within the next three years.
It did not explain whether the sentence included her time served so far or say when she may be released from custody. A motion to appeal can be filed within 30 days.
Hathloul was among more than a dozen activists arrested in May 2018, and held on suspicion of harming Saudi Arabia’s interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.
At the time, international rights groups reported the detention of prominent female campaigners among the detainees, who had previously campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system.
Some were later released, but activists have said several of the women were held in solitary confinement for months and faced torture and sexual harassment.
Saudi Arabia overturned the world's only ban on female motorists on June 24, 2018. The lifting of the prohibition followed a sweeping crackdown on prominent women's rights activists, who had staunchly advocated for the right to drive.
United Nations human rights experts have called the charges against Hathloul spurious, and along with leading rights groups and lawmakers in the United States and Europe have called for her release.
The women’s rights activist began a hunger strike in prison on October 26 to demand regular contact with her family, but felt compelled to end it two weeks later.
“She was being woken up by the guards every two hours, day and night, as a brutal tactic to break her. Yet, she is far from broken,” Amnesty International, citing the activist's family, said last month.
Hathloul's family says she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention. Saudi authorities deny the accusations.
Saudi authorities have arrested dozens of activists, bloggers, intellectuals and others perceived as political opponents ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the kingdom’s de facto leader in 2017, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnations of the crackdown.
UN rights office urges "early release" of Saudi women's rights activist
Later on Monday, the United Nations human rights office called for the "early release" of Saudi women's rights activist, after she was sentenced to jail in a trial that has drawn international condemnation, Reuters reported.
"Conviction and 5 yrs 8 month sentence handed down to prominent women’s rights campaigner #LoujainAl-Hathloul, already arbitrarily detained for 2 ½ years, is also deeply troubling. We understand early release is possible, & strongly encourage it as matter of urgency," the office wrote 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