It was clear that Loujain al-Hathloul intended to return home to Saudia Arabia to advocate for women’s rights after graduating in Canada, says a friend who got to know the imprisoned activist while the two women were studying at the University of British Columbia.
“She wanted to go back to Saudi Arabia,” said Atiya Jaffar, who was on the Vancouver campus with al-Hathloul between 2009 and 2013. “All of the activism that she engaged in after graduation, I believe she did it out of a love for her people and her country.”
Now one Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, 31-year-old al-Hathloul was sentenced Monday to nearly six years in prison, according to state-linked media, under a vague and broadly worded counterterrorism law.
“A conviction for terrorism is not justice for Loujain,” said Jaffar, describing al-Hathloul as a lively person and engaged student who was involved in numerous extracurricular clubs and activities. She was studying French, said Jaffar.
Al-Hathloul could be released in March 2021 based on time already served, according to rights group “Prisoners of Conscience,” which focuses on Saudi political detainees. She has been imprisoned since May 2018, and 34 months of her sentencing will be suspended.
Her family said in a statement she will be barred from leaving the kingdom for five years and required to serve three years of probation after her release.
Jaffar said she worries the suspended sentence “could be used as an excuse for a future arrest, as could the terrorism verdict in general.”
Al-Hathloul’s continued imprisonment was likely to be a point of contention in relations between the kingdom and the incoming presidency of Joe Biden, whose inauguration takes place in January — around two months before what is now expected to be al-Hathloul’s release date.
Biden has vowed to review the U.S.-Saudi relationship and take into greater consideration human rights and democratic principles. He has also vowed to reverse President Donald Trump’s policy of giving Saudi Arabia “a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies,” including the targeting of female activists.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, called the sentencing of al-Hathloul “unjust and troubling.”
“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he said in a tweet.
Al-Hathloul was found guilty and sentenced to five years and eight months by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism court on charges of agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order and co-operating with individuals and entities that have committed crimes under anti-terror laws, according to state-linked Saudi news site Sabq. The charges all come under the country’s broadly worded counterterrorism law.
Another Saudi women’s rights activist, Maya’a al-Zahrani, was issued the same sentence for a similar list of charges by the Specialized Criminal Court, which tries terrorism cases, according to local media reports Monday.
Both women have 30 days to appeal the verdicts.
A number of other women’s rights activists remain imprisoned or continue to face trials on charges related to their activism, such as pushing for the right to drive before the ban was lifted months in mid-2018.
“She was charged, tried and convicted using counter-terrorism laws,” al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, said in a statement. “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy,” she said, referring to the Saudi crown prince by his initials.
Sabq, which said its reporter was allowed inside the courtroom, reported that the judge said the defendant had confessed to committing the crimes and that her confessions were made voluntarily and without coercion. The report said the verdict was issued in the presence of the prosecutor, the defendant, a representative from the government’s Human Rights Commission and a handful of select local media representatives.
Al-Hathloul has long been defiantly outspoken about human rights in Saudi Arabia, even from behind bars. She launched hunger strikes to protest her imprisonment 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.
The activist rejected an offer to rescind her allegations of torture in exchange for early release, according to her family. A court recently dismissed her allegations, citing a lack of evidence.
Among other allegations was that one of the masked interrogators was Saud al-Qahtani, a close confidante and advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the time. Al-Qahtani was later sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey.
In many ways, her case came to symbolize Prince Mohammed’s dual strategy of being credited for ushering in sweeping social reforms and simultaneously cracking down on activists who had long pushed for change.
While some activists and their families have been pressured into silence, al-Hathloul’s siblings, who reside in the U.S. and Europe, consistently spoke out against the state prosecutor’s case and launched campaigns calling for her release.
The prosecutor had called for the maximum sentence of 20 years, citing evidence such as al-Hathloul’s tweets in support of lifting a decades-long ban on women driving and speaking out against male guardianship laws that had led to multiple instances of Saudi women fleeing abusive families for refuge abroad. Al-Hathloul’s family said the prosecutor’s evidence included her contacts with rights group Amnesty International. She was also charged with speaking to European diplomats about human rights in Saudi Arabia, though that was later dropped by the prosecutor.
The longtime activist was first detained in 2014 under the previous monarch, King Abdullah, and held for more than 70 days after she attempted to livestream herself driving from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia to protest the ban on women driving.
She’s also spoken out against guardianship laws that barred women from travelling abroad without the consent of a male relative, such as a father, husband or brother. The kingdom eased guardianship laws last year, allowing women to apply for a passport and travel freely.
Her activism landed her multiple human rights awards and spreads in magazines like Vanity Fair in a photo shoot next to Meghan Markle, who would later become the Duchess of Sussex. She was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
Al-Hathloul’s family say in 2018, shortly after attending a U.N.-related meeting in Geneva about the situation of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, she was kidnapped by Emirati security forces in Abu Dhabi, where she’d been residing and pursuing a master’s degree. She was then forced on a plane to Saudi Arabia, where she was barred from travelling and later arrested.
Al-Hathloul was among three female activists targeted that year by state-linked media, which circulated her picture online and dubbed her a traitor.
By Aya Batrawy with The Associated Press in Dubai and Brenna Owen with The Canadian Press in Vancouver. AP writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed.
The Canadian Press
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.