One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison under vague counter-terrorism laws, according to state-linked media.
Human rights campaigner Loujain al Hathloul, 31, has been held in pre-trial detention since May 2018.
She was one of a group of activists arrested without clear explanation weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted the female driving ban.
This month, she was tried in a specialist terrorism court that found her guilty of conspiring against the kingdom, alongside a series of other crimes set out in the country’s broadly-worded counter-terrorism laws.
Her imprisonment is expected to be a point of contention between Saudi Arabia and the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden, who has vowed to review America’s relationship with the kingdom.
Mr Biden has criticised the Trump administration for giving Saudi Arabia a “blank cheque” over its targeting of female activists such as Ms al Hathloul, and journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi.
Ms al Hathloul had campaigned for the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia and protested against the system of male guardianship, where men control aspects of the lives of female family members – from travel and jobs to marriage.
The sentence was reported on Sunday by Sabq, a state-linked news agency, which said its reporter was allowed inside the courtroom. It reported that the judge said the defendant had voluntarily confessed to the crimes without coercion.
Her charges were agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order, and cooperating with individuals and entities that have committed crimes under anti-terror laws.
In a statement, her sister Lina al Hathloul, said: “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”
Alongside time already served, the court suspended 34 months of her sentence. But her family said that when she is released in three months, she will be prohibited from leaving the kingdom for five years and will serve three of those years on probation.
She has 30 days to appeal the verdict.
Speaking to Sky News when the trial was announced, Lina said her sister’s physical and mental state were both terrible.
“My sister is really not healthy,” Lina said in a conversation via Skype from Berlin.
“She was on a hunger strike… her body was really shaking and her voice was very low. Psychologically and morally, she’s holding on, but she’s the weakest my parents have ever seen her.”
Last year a report by MPs and lawyers expressed “deep concern” at the condition of female detainees in the kingdom, alleging they were subject to torture and sexual abuse.
The report, authored by Scottish barrister Baroness Kennedy, alleged that Ms al Hathloul was one of a number of female activists subjected to torture and sexual abuse while in detention. The report did not provide any direct evidence to back up its allegations.
Even as a prisoner, Ms al Hathloul launched hunger strikes in protest and joined other female activists in telling Saudi judges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during interrogations.
The women say they were caned, electrocuted and waterboarded. Some say they were forcibly groped and threatened with rape.
Saudi Arabia has denied these allegations. A court in the kingdom recently dismissed Ms al Hathloul’s legal claims, citing a lack of evidence.
Her family said she had earlier rejected an offer to rescind her allegations in exchange for early release.
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