Saudi Women’s Rights Activist Convicted But She May Be Freed
(Bloomberg) -- A prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist whose arrest and alleged torture drew international condemnation was convicted of crimes against the state but could be freed from prison early next year, according to her family.
Loujain Al-Hathloul, 31, was found guilty on Monday by a court in Riyadh of inciting regime change, seeking to serve foreign agendas through the internet with the goal of harming public order and cooperating with individuals and entities criminalized by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism law, according to the online Saudi newspaper Sabq.
She was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, but accounting for time served since her arrest in May 2018, and a partial sentence suspension of two years and 10 months, she could be released in about two months, her sister Lina Al-Hathloul wrote on Twitter. She was also banned from traveling abroad for five years, and both the public prosecutor and her family can appeal the sentence, her sister said.
The partially suspended sentence is likely to be viewed as a nod -- but not a complete capitulation -- to foreign pressure ahead of the transition to a Biden administration expected to be less tolerant of the kingdom’s human rights record. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has said he’ll treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over rights concerns after the kingdom enjoyed a particularly friendly relationship with Donald Trump.
In an early indication that the next U.S. leader may not be easily placated by such Saudi moves, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice for national security adviser, said in a tweet Monday that Al-Hathloul’s conviction “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman expressed concern about the sentence as well. “We’ve emphasized the importance of free expression and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia as it advances women’s rights,” Cale Brown said in a tweet. “We look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021.”
Adam Coogle, deputy director of the Middle East and North African division for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that “Saudi Arabia convicting a prominent human rights activist between Christmas and New Year’s shows they are trying to minimize attention because they are embarrassed over their treatment of Loujain, and they should be.” He called it a “travesty of justice” that “reveals the depths to which they will go to root out independent voices.”
Her sister Alia Al-Hathloul saw a bittersweet victory.
“I was upset about the ruling, but when I saw that everyone was congratulating me and everyone was excited for Loujain to leave prison within months, I realized that people consider this verdict a victory for Loujain and everyone understands that the government needs to save face,” she wrote on Twitter.
Loujain Al-Hathloul’s arrest made global headlines, as did allegations of torture in custody that were denied by Saudi officials.
Detained shortly before Saudi Arabia ended its ban on women driving after advocating for that reform for years, Al-Hathloul became a symbol of the complexities of the new Saudi Arabia being fashioned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The 35-year-old de facto ruler has granted women more rights, loosened social restrictions and courted foreign investment. Simultaneously, he’s cracked down on domestic dissent, arresting scores of well-known clerics, businessmen, intellectuals and activists.
That muzzling of opposition voices has created a new generation of Saudi dissidents and spurred increased advocacy abroad -- including by Al-Hathloul’s siblings -- causing potential embarrassment for the kingdom. Several Saudis in exile hired American lobbyists or lawyers to push their cases into the spotlight in the period leading up to the U.S. election.
Authorities show little sign of easing the pressure, however, as they continue to detain Saudis across the political and religious spectrum. At one point, Al-Hathloul’s case was moved to a court used for terrorism trials. Earlier this year, she was held incommunicado for months, prompting a hunger strike, according to her family.
Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg News in 2018 that Al-Hathloul and other activists had been arrested for reasons unrelated to their activism, and were accused of passing information to foreign intelligence.
He invited reporters to visit the public prosecutor to view the evidence for themselves. But repeated requests to do so weren’t granted, and Al-Hathloul’s official indictment didn’t mention contact with foreign intelligence officials or divulging secrets.
Instead, she faced charges such as calling for regime change and advocating for women’s rights “in service of foreign agendas,” as well as communicating with foreign journalists and diplomats.
Prince Mohammed cultivated close ties with President Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, getting a declaration of support even after U.S.-based Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Biden has threatened to stop the sales of American weapons to the kingdom and to hold it accountable for the killing of Khashoggi. Ties with Saudi officials were often cool under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.
Other cases likely to draw attention from the new U.S. administration include those of Salah Al-Haidar and Bader Al-Ibrahim -- American-Saudi dual nationals detained in 2019 along with a group of intellectuals and writers.
A third American-Saudi citizen, Walid Fitaihi, was sentenced to six years in prison recently despite pressure from the Trump administration to drop his charges, which included getting American citizenship without permission and criticizing other Arab states, the New York Times reported.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.