Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi women’s rights activist detained three years ago by the Saudi government, has been sentenced to five years and eight months in jail after being found guilty of spying with foreign parties and conspiring against the kingdom.
But the court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, and backdated the start of her jail term to May 2018, meaning she only has three months left to serve.
Although human rights campaigners will say she should never have been detained for so long without charge, the prospect of serving only a further three months in jail will help defuse a potentially damaging early confrontation with the Biden administration that would have occurred if she had been locked up for a further 20 years, as seemed possible at one point.
The Saudi courts had already cleared the kingdom’s prosecutors of torturing her in detention, saying there was no evidence that she was transferred from Jeddah governorate to a secret location where she was tortured and sexually harassed.
The news of her verdict was first tweeted by the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, which said a Saudi court had “sentenced a female detainee with incitement to change the kingdom’s ruling regime and cooperating with individuals and entities to carry out a foreign agenda”.
She had been arrested in May 2018 along with four other human rights activists. She claims she was not allowed to speak to anyone for seven weeks after her arrest.
The Saudi kingdom has repeatedly denied that she was arrested for campaigning for women’s right to drive, a right that was granted in 2018, but instead for mounting a campaign to undermine the royal family. The case underlines how little political dissent is allowed within the kingdom.
The original charge sheet included meeting British and other European diplomats, as well as applying for a job at the United Nations, and using her arrest in her CV. She was also accused of speaking to foreign press agencies and international human rights groups.
Other charges included joining a group on the messaging app Telegram, where she discussed human rights and a new constitution, liaising with the human rights defender Khaled al-Omair and receiving daily expenses of €50 from foreign organisations when attending international conferences to speak about women in Saudi Arabia.
Other alleged offences involve tweets about her drive from UAE into Saudi Arabia and documents found on her laptop including a pdf file of the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. She was also accused of communicating with European embassies about her case at the time the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was due to visit those countries.
After more than two years of detention, and some internal debate within the kingdom on how to handle her case, the Saudis waited until after their hosting of the G20 summit in November to transfer her case to the specialised criminal court.
Amnesty International was one of many groups to contrast the Saudi claim to be empowering women with its imprisonment and torture of peaceful female activists.
At the last minute, on 10 December, the Saudis dropped charges that included her having been in contact with British, EU and Dutch embassies, possibly because all three are regarded as friendly powers and their involvement in the case might prompt higher levels of protest.
Hathloul’s sister, Lina, wrote in a tweet that although the ruling meant her sister could be released in March 2021, she was also subject to a five-year travel ban. She said that both her sister and the prosecutor could appeal.
The suspension of Hathloul’s jail term is also dependent on her not repeating any of the offences over the next three years, a condition that would put a block on her freedom of speech, presuming she is required to stay in Saudi Arabia.
The hearing was attended by her family. State-owned Saudi newspapers claimed she had admitted to the offences.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, described the sentence as shameful, saying Hathloul had “demanded her rights rather than wait for the Saudi crown prince to bestow them at his own stately pace as a matter of royal prerogative”.
Alaa Al-Siddiq, executive director of ALQST, the Saudi human rights group, said: “The fact that she has been sentenced under the counter-terrorism law, based on charges solely relating to her peaceful activism, is the latest travesty of justice in a trial that has been flawed from start to finish and lacked reliable court evidence.”
Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said she found the sentence disturbing, adding that defending human rights was not terrorism.
The human rights group Grant Liberty said: “Loujain is a peaceful campaigner for the basic freedoms the rest of the world takes for granted. In response, she has been imprisoned, tortured and abused by the Saudi authorities – yet they call her a terrorist.”