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Rights groups condemn ‘cruel’ sentencing of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul

Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison [Twitter]

Date of publication: 29 December, 2020

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Human rights groups have condemned the sentencing of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years in prison as “cruel” and demanded her immediate release.

Human rights groups on Monday condemned the sentencing of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to a prison term of five years and eight months by a Saudi court.

Hathloul was convicted by Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), of charges including “spying with foreign parties” and “conspiring against the kingdom”.

Amnesty International has said that trials conducted by the SCC are “intrinsically unfair” and “, in gross violation of the international right to fair trial”.

Two years and ten months of the sentence was suspended on condition that Hathloul “does not commit any crime” within the next three years and the activist, who has been in prison since May 2018, could be released by March according to Hathloul’s sister Lina.

However, Lina Hathloul also said that Loujain cried after hearing the verdict, which in addition to sentencing her to prison time, brands her a “terrorist” and bans her from travelling abroad for five years.

Amnesty International described the sentence as “cruel”, pointing out that Loujain Al-Hathloul was being punished for peaceful activism.

“Loujain al-Hathloul is a brave human rights defender whose peaceful activism together with other brave Saudi activists has driven momentous social change in Saudi Arabia. This sentencing, while partially suspended, still shows the cruelty of the Saudi authorities towards one of the bravest women who dared to be vocal about her dreams of a better Saudi Arabia”, Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said.

Read more: Kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured - How the Saudi regime wanted to silence women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul

Hathloul, along with other Saudi prisoners of conscience, has endured torture and abuse in prison and Morayef said that there were ongoing concerns for her health.

“Loujain al-Hathloul has already spent more than 900 days in detention, during which she endured torture, sexual harassment and other forms of ill-treatment, was held in solitary confinement and denied access to her family. We are extremely concerned for her wellbeing and safety, and reiterate our calls for her immediate and unconditional release. In the meantime, Loujain must be allowed access to her family and a doctor of her choosing.”

Morayef also called on Saudi Arabia to release all other human rights and women’s rights activists currently in jail, including Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani, and drop charges against them.

The UN Human Rights office in Geneva also called for Hathloul’s immediate release. It described the activist's conviction and sentence after she was "arbitrarily" detained since 2018 as "deeply troubling".

"We understand early release is possible, and strongly encourage it as matter of urgency," it said on Twitter.

France's foreign ministry said it reiterated its call for Hathloul's "quick release", a view echoed by Germany's human rights commissioner Barbel Kofler.

"Saudi Arabia's sentencing of Loujain al-Hathloul for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling," tweeted Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor in US President-Elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.

The detention of women activists has cast a renewed spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.

A source close to the Hathloul family told AFP that the verdict against Loujain was a "face saving exit strategy" for the Saudi government after coming under severe international pressure for her release.

A motion to appeal can be filed within a month by the activist and the public prosecutor, who Loujain's family said had sought a 20-year jail term for her.

Biden has pledged to intensify scrutiny of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's human rights failings, after Saudi Arabia largely got a free pass under Donald Trump. The President-elect is expected to push the kingdom to release dual US-Saudi citizens, activists and royal family members, many of whom are detained without any formal charges.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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