One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists was sentenced on Monday to nearly six years in prison under a vague and broadly worded law aimed at combating terrorism, according to state-linked media.
Loujain Alhathloul’s case, and her imprisonment for the past two and a half years, have drawn international criticism from rights groups, members of the U.S. Congress and European Union lawmakers. Alhathloul, whose family members in Canada have been advocating for her release, is a graduate of the University of British Columbia who lived in Canada for five years.
State-linked Saudi news outlet Sabq reported that Alhathloul, 31, was found guilty by the kingdom’s anti-terrorism court on charges including agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order.
She has 30 days to appeal the verdict.
Activism and imprisonment
Alhathloul was among a handful of Saudi women who openly called for the right to drive before it was granted in 2018 and for the removal of male guardianship laws that had long stifled women’s freedom of movement and ability to travel abroad.
She was arrested for the first time in 2014 while attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates — where she had a valid driver’s licence — to Saudi Arabia. She spent 73 days in a women’s detention facility, an experience she later said helped shape her campaigning against the kingdom’s male guardianship system.
In 2016, a year after she became one of the first women to stand for municipal election in Saudi Arabia, she was among 14,000 signatories on a petition to King Salman calling for an end to the guardianship system.
In March 2018 Hathloul was arrested in the UAE, where she was studying, and forcibly flown to Riyadh, where she was held under house arrest before being moved to prison in May, rights groups say. She was among at least a dozen other women’s rights activists arrested.
UN calls sentence ‘deeply troubling’
In a statement, the UN human rights office said the conviction and sentence handed to Hathloul, “already arbitrarily detained for 2½ years, is also deeply troubling.” The office urged her “early release” as a matter of urgency.
Her family has called on the Canadian government to be more aggressive in holding Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations to account. Alhathloul has told her family she has been held in solitary confinement and suffered electrocution, flogging, and sexual assault.
A rights group called Prisoners of Conscience, which focuses on Saudi political detainees, said that Alhathloul could be released as early as the end of March 2021 based on time served. She has been imprisoned since May 2018 and 34 months of her sentencing will be suspended.
The judge ordered her to serve five years and eight months in prison for violating anti-terrorism laws, according to Sabq, which said its reporter was allowed inside the courtroom during Monday’s session.