WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Vivian Nereim reports, “Loujain Al-Hathloul, 31, was found guilty by a court in Riyadh of inciting change to the ruling system, harming it and seeking to serve foreign agendas through the internet.”
A Saudi Arabian court sentenced a prominent women’s rights activist to nearly six years in prison, a ruling likely to stir condemnation abroad shortly before the incoming Biden administration is expected to pressure the kingdom over its human rights record.
Loujain Al-Hathloul, 31, was found guilty by a court in Riyadh of inciting change to the ruling system, harming it and seeking to serve foreign agendas through the internet, according to the online Saudi newspaper Sabq. The sentence dates back to the time of her May 2018 arrest and includes a suspended term of two years and 10 months. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that suspended sentence is concurrent but if so, she could be out early next year.
Al-Hathloul’s arrest made global headlines, as did allegations that she had been tortured in custody that were denied by Saudi officials. Her sentencing could become a pressure point for the government of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he’ll treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over human rights concerns after the kingdom enjoyed a particularly friendly relationship with Donald Trump.
Detained shortly before Saudi Arabia ended its ban on women driving after advocating for that reform for years, Al-Hathloul became a symbol of the complexities of the new Saudi Arabia being fashioned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The 35-year-old de facto ruler has granted women more rights, loosened social restrictions and courted foreign investment.
Simultaneously, he’s cracked down on domestic dissent, detaining scores of well-known clerics, businessmen, intellectuals and activists.
That tightening noose has created a new generation of Saudi dissidents and spurred increased advocacy abroad — including by Al-Hathloul’s siblings — causing potential embarrassment for the kingdom. Several Saudis in exile hired American lobbyists or lawyers to push their cases into the spotlight in the period leading up to the U.S. election. Authorities show little sign of easing the pressure, however, as they continue to detain Saudis across the political and religious spectrum. At one point, Al-Hathloul’s case was moved to a court used for terrorism trials.
Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg in 2018 that Al-Hathloul and other activists had been arrested for reasons unrelated to their activism, and were accused of passing information to foreign intelligence.
He invited reporters to visit the public prosecutor to view the evidence for themselves. But repeated requests to do so were not granted, and Al-Hathloul’s official indictment didn’t mention contact with foreign intelligence officials or divulging secrets.
Instead, she faced charges such as calling for regime change and advocating for women’s rights “in service of foreign agendas,” as well as communicating with foreign journalists and diplomats.
Prince Mohammed cultivated close ties with President Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, getting a declaration of support even after U.S.-based Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Biden has threatened to stop the sales of American weapons to the kingdom and to hold it accountable for the killing of Khashoggi. Ties with Saudi officials were often cool under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.
Other cases likely to draw attention from the new U.S. administration include those of Salah Al-Haidar and Bader Al-Ibrahim — American-Saudi dual nationals detained in 2019 along with a group of intellectuals and writers.
A third American-Saudi citizen, Walid Fitaihi, was sentenced to six years in prison recently despite pressure from the Trump administration to drop his charges, which included getting American citizenship without permission and criticizing other Arab states, the New York Times reported.
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