Middle East

Saudi prosecutor seeks maximum jail sentence for women’s rights activist

The state prosecutor’s office in Saudi Arabia is seeking the maximum possible jail sentence for the women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, raising the possibility that the campaigner could face 20 years behind bars after a verdict in her case is announced next week.

In a hearing on Wednesday at Saudi Arabia’s notorious terrorism court, the judge said he would deliver a verdict and possible sentencing in the case on Monday, said Hathloul’s sister Lina, who also shared a copy of the prosecution’s indictment with the Guardian.

Later on Wednesday night, however, Loujain’s parents, who act as her legal team, received a text message summoning them to Riyadh’s criminal court on Thursday morning. It is not yet clear what this development means for Hathloul’s case, which was transferred from the criminal court to the terrorism court last month.

“My sister must be released … All she has done is ask for women to be treated with the dignity and freedom that should be their right. For that, the Saudi authorities are seeking the maximum sentence available under the law – 20 years in prison,” said Lina al-Hathloul.

“They say she is a terrorist – in reality she is a humanitarian, an activist and a woman who simply wants a better fairer world.”

Hathloul, 31, is one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent human rights activists. She has been arrested and detained several times for defying the country’s ban on women driving and for campaigning for an end to the male guardianship system, which makes women second-class citizens.

She was kidnapped and arrested along with several other activists in May 2018, just before the law on women driving was changed, in what was interpreted as a message from the Saudi leadership that reform in the ultra-conservative kingdom can only come from the top down.

Since then, relatives say Hathloul has been sexually assaulted, tortured with beatings and electric shocks, and held incommunicado for long periods of time. Several hunger strike attempts have also led a UN women’s rights committee to express alarm about her failing health.

After being tried in Riyadh’s criminal court on spurious charges including destabilising national security and working with foreign entities against the state, Hathloul’s case was transferred in November to the specialised criminal court (SCC).

Amnesty International alleges that the secretive body routinely hands down lengthy jail sentences and death sentences to those who defy the country’s absolute monarchy and obtains confessions under torture.

“A regime that sees women’s activism as terrorism is deeply broken. There is no moral or legal case for [activists’] continued imprisonment, and their prolonged incarceration is not even in the narrow interests of the Saudi regime,” said Lucy Rae, a spokesperson for the human rights advocacy body Grant Liberty, which campaigns on behalf of Saudi prisoners of conscience.

“Saudi Arabia will never rehabilitate its reputation while it continues to imprison and torture those who campaign for basic freedoms.”

Riyadh has embarked on a series of wide-reaching social reforms since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed heir to the throne in 2017: as well as allowing women to drive, the country’s notorious morality police have been reined in and women now have the freedom to travel without the permission of a male guardian.

The reforms, however, have been accompanied by a mounting state crackdown on dissenting voices.

While Donald Trump cultivated a personal relationship with Prince Mohammed, supporting the heir to the throne’s intervention in Yemen’s war and defending him against allegations of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, president-elect Joe Biden has promised to re-evaluate US-Saudi ties.

In a sign the kingdom may be doubling down on its repressive tactics, however, on Tuesday, the prominent dual-national Saudi-American doctor Walid Fitaihi was sentenced to six years in prison on charges that included getting US citizenship without approval and sympathising with an unnamed terrorist organisation.

Riyadh has not publicly commented on his case.


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