A Saudi court on Monday sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison, local media reported, in a trial that has drawn international condemnation as Riyadh faces new US scrutiny.
Hathloul, 31, has been held since 2018 following her arrest along with at least a dozen other women’s rights activists.
The verdict, reported by Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat newspapers, poses an early challenge to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with US President-elect Joe Biden, who has criticised Riyadh’s human rights record.
Hathloul was charged with seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national security, local media said. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence — or most of the time already served her arrest on May 15, 2018 — with a conditional release to follow.
Hathloul could, therefore, be released around end of February 2021, with a return to prison possible if she commits any crime, the newspapers said.
UN human rights experts have called the charges “spurious”, and along with leading rights groups and lawmakers in the US and Europe have called for her release.
Rights groups and her family say Hathloul, who had championed women’s right to drive and for ending the kingdom’s male guardian system, was subjected to electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi authorities have denied the charges.
Hathloul’s sentencing came nearly three weeks after a Riyadh court jailed US-Saudi physician Walid al-Fitaihi for six years, despite US pressure to release him, in a case rights groups have called politically motivated.
Foreign diplomats said the two trials aimed to send a message at home and abroad that Saudi Arabia would not yield to pressure on human rights issues. Riyadh could also use the sentences as leverage in future negotiations with the Biden administration, one diplomat said.
Biden has said he will take a firmer line with the kingdom, an oil titan and a major buyer of American arms, than President Donald Trump, who was a strong supporter of Prince Mohammed.