Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi women’s right activist detained three years ago by the Saudi government, has been sentenced to five years and eight months in jail after being found guilty of spying with foreign parties and conspiring against the Kingdom.
But the court suspended 2 years and 10 months of her sentence, and backdated the start of her jail term to May 2018, meaning she only has three months left to serve.
Although human rights campaigners will say she should never have been detained for so long without charge, the prospect of serving only further three months in jail will help defuse a potentially damaging early confrontation with the Biden administration that would have occurred if she had been locked up for a further 20 years, as seemed possible at one point.
The Saudi courts have already cleared the kingdom’s prosecutors of torturing her in detention saying there was no evidence that she was transferred from Jeddah governorate to a secret location where she was tortured and sexually harassed.
The news of her verdict was first tweeted by newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, which said a “Saudi court sentenced a female detainee with incitement to change the Kingdom’s ruling regime and co-operating with individuals and entities to carry out a foreign agenda”.
She had been arrested in May 2018 along with four other human rights activists. She claims she was not allowed to speak to anyone after her arrest for seven weeks.
The Saudi Kingdom has repeatedly denied that she was arrested for campaigning for women’s right to drive, a right that was granted in 2018, but instead for mounting a campaign to undermine the royal family. The case underlines how little political dissent is allowed within the Kingdom.
The original charge sheet included meeting British and other European diplomats, as well as applying for a job at the United Nations, and using her arrest in her CV. She was also accused of speaking to foreign press agencies and international human rights groups.
Other charges included joining a group on Telegram, where she discussed human rights and a new constitution, liaising with human rights defender Khaled al-Omair and receiving daily expenses of €50 from foreign organisations when attending international conferences to speak about women in Saudi Arabia.
Other alleged offences involve tweets about her drive from UAE into Saudi Arabia and documents found on her laptop including a PDF of the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. She was also accused of communicating with European embassies about her case at the time the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was due to visit those countries.
After more than two years of detention, and some internal debate within the Kingdom on how to handle her case, the Saudis waited until after its hosting of the G20 summit in November to transfer her case to the specialised criminal court.
Amnesty International was one of may groups to contrast the Saudi claim to be empowering women when it imprisons and tortures peaceful women activists.
At the last minute on December 10 the Saudis dropped charges that included her having been in contact with British EU and Dutch embassies, possibly because all three powers are regarded as friendly powers and their involvement in the case might prompt higher levels of protest.