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Saudi Arabia jails activist Loujain al-Hathloul

December 28, 2020

A Saudi anti-terrorism court has jailed Loujain al-Hathloul for five years and eight months, local media have reported. Her brother slammed the process as a "sham trial."

Loujain al-Hathloul
Rights experts say Loujain al-Hathloul is being persecuted for her activismImage: Reuters/ Amnesty International/M. Wijntjes

A court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison, local media reported on Monday. The jail term comes despite pressure from international organizations and human rights groups to release her.

Al-Hathloul was convicted of "various activities prohibited by the anti-terrorism law," Saudi media allowed to attend the trial cited the court as saying. The charges included agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order.

Two years and 10 months of her sentence were suspended.

Who is Loujain al-Hathloul?

Loujain Al-Hathloul, 31, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and 2020, was arrested in May 2018 along with around a dozen other women activists, weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted its decadeslong ban on female drivers. Most of them had been campaigning for the right to drive. They are accused of terrorism-related charges.

UN experts have called the charges against her "spurious."

Elizabeth Broderick, the chair of the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, has called for al-Hathloul's immediate release, saying that she was on trial "for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association."

Saudi Human Rights

Al-Hathloul's case was transferred to the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), or anti-terrorism court, last month.

Her parents, Abdullah and Fatima, who act as al-Hathloul's legal representatives, have themselves been banned from traveling abroad since March 2018. As international observers, press and diplomats were not permitted at the court hearings, social media has become the main platform for drawing attention to her plight.

"It is a nerve-wracking trial," her younger sister Lina Al-Hathloul told DW before the verdict.

Critics slam 'unfair' trial

Loujain al-Hathloul's brother Walid said the family was "completely disappointed" with the verdict. 

"It's showing that there is no way we can get justice from a sham trial... The trial from day one has been politically motivated," said Walid al-Hathloul, who is based in Toronto, told the AFP news agency.

Human Rights Watch said earlier this month that Saudi authorities were rushing through her trial. The rights group has previously criticized the SCC for silencing government critics by holding unfair trials and meting out long jail terms.

"Saudi Arabia is infamous for its cases against human rights activists and prominent dissidents whose cases were fundamentally unfair and full of abnormalities," Adam Coogle, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, told DW.

He said he was doubtful that an appeal would prove successful, as "it presupposes a legitimate justice system in which decisions are made objectively and independently, and that's the furthest thing from the case here."

Omid Nouripour, a German parliamentarian with the Green party who met al-Hathloul several times before her arrest, echoed criticism that the trial was unfair. The case "exemplifies [the Saudi government's] take on critically thinking people," he told DW ahead of Monday's verdict.

Saudi Arabian women fighting back

Berlin keeps up pressure on Riyadh

Ahead of the verdict, the German Foreign Ministry repeatedly told DW it was following the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, including al-Hathloul's case, with great concern. "The German Embassy in Riyadh has consequently, yet unsuccessfully, tried to get access to the hearings," the ministry told DW. "We still see no unlawful behavior of Mrs Hathloul and ask for her release."

Following the decision, Berlin slammed al-Hathloul's terrorism verdict as "incomprehensible."

The activist has "stood, with great courage for more self-determination and rights for Saudi women — an agenda that has now also been endorsed by the Saudi government," said Bärbel Kofler, the German government's human rights commissioner.

"Reports of torture of Ms. al-Hathloul and her poor health condition are very disturbing and it is impossible to understand why the court did not follow up on those claims."

The German official also said it was "encouraging" that this verdict at least provides a possibility that the activist — who has already spent years in prison and had part of her sentence suspended — would soon be released.

"This perspective must now become reality," she said.

Jennifer Holleis contributed to this article.

dr,dj/ng (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AP)