Following the sentence, al-Hathloul’s sister Lina al-Hathloul posted on Twitter: “Loujain cried when she heard the sentence today. After nearly three years of arbitrary detention, torture, solitary confinement – they now sentence her and label her a terrorist. Loujain will appeal the sentence and ask for another investigation regarding torture”.
Even so, al-Hathloul’s prison sentence will end in March 2021, since the court has suspended 34 months of her sentence and has calculated the prison verdict from May 2018 onwards, when she was first detained by the authorities.
The American Bar Association (ABA) notes that the Saudi authorities created the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in 2008 to prosecute thousands of detainees who were kept in detention “without charge” since being held after the terrorist attacks — claimed by al-Qaeda — inside the kingdom in 2003. However, shortly after the setting up of this court, the caseload was expanded from the trials of alleged violent extremists to include political dissidents, religious minorities and human rights activists.
Who is al-Hathloul?
al-Hathloul has been instrumental in the movement to lift the driving ban on women and the “Wilayah” male guardianship system. It was only last year in August that Saudi Arabian women were allowed to travel abroad without obtaining permission from a male guardian, apply for passports and register their marriages and divorces.
However, the importance of the step for women’s rights notwithstanding, both critics and detached observers noted at the time that the dismantling of the kingdom’s rigid ‘male guardianship’ system was probably only an effort to deflect from its deeply questionable human rights record, which includes the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.
In 2014, al-Hathloul, who had a driving license issued in the UAE, was detained for 73 days for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the UAE. Following this, weeks before the Saudi Arabian authorities lifted the ban on women drivers in 2018 (the last such ban in the world) she was arrested along with several other women’s rights activists.
In 2015, al-Hathloul stood for elections in Saudi Arabia, which was also the first time that women were allowed to vote and stand for elections. Even so, her name was not added to the ballots, according to Amnesty International.
al-Hathloul was detained in 2018 on grounds of national security. She was charged under Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime law that penalises the production and transmission of material deemed to impinge on public order, religious values, public morals and life, as per UN Human Rights.
For over 10 months after she was detained, she was not charged and there was no trial. According to Amnesty International, she was waterboarded, given electric shocks, was sexually harassed and was threatened with rape and murder during this time.
What is the status of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia?
Even though Saudi Arabia seems to be progressing towards a more open society, with the ban on women drivers lifted in 2018 and women not requiring permission from their male guardians to apply for a passport anymore, there have been several instances of women rights activists being arrested.
Further, the state has been criticised for repressing the freedom of expression, association and assembly and it is well known that Saudi Arabia takes a dim view of dissent and has targeted a number of political activists in the recent past.
Khashoggi, a prominent journalist who was murdered in October 2018, had left Saudi Arabia in 2017 and lived in self-exile in Washington DC since he feared that the state would take action against him if he was vocal about his political views. In July 2018, just months before he was murdered, Khashoggi told The Economist that he was nervous. “I was banned from writing. I was banned from tweeting at that time,” he said. He also told the magazine that he would not consider returning to Saudi Arabia since he did not want to risk losing his freedom. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has concluded that Kashoggi’s assassination was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
But while Khashoggi’s murder has been one of the most high-profile cases, there are other instances as well. For instance, the case is of Saudi scholar Salman al-Awdah who called for reform in Saudi Arabia and was ostensibly arrested after his Twitter post on September 9, 2017. He had tweeted: “May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people”. However, it was seen by the Saudi state as a call for reconciliation with Qatar. al-Awdah has been charged with 37 counts and faces the death penalty.
According to a report published by the British non-profit Reprieve, Saudi Arabia has carried out its 800th execution under the crown prince’s five-year-rule and as per Amnesty International, the kingdom executed 184 people in 2019.
My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist, said Lina al-Hathloul, sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi human rights activist who was sentenced to prison by an anti-terrorism court on Monday. “To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy,” she said in a statement, referring to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by his initials.
Ms. Loujain, a prominent advocate for women’s rights in the conservative kingdom, was arrested in May 2018 along with others who campaigned for lifting a ban on women driving, a few weeks before the ban was actually lifted. She was later charged for contacting organisations and diplomats that are hostile to Saudi Arabia. The arrest had gained international attention with rights groups asking the Saudi authorities to release her. But the kingdom did not relent. Ms. Loujain’s case was transferred to an anti-terrorism court in November last year, and on Monday, the judge found her guilty of various charges including trying to harm Saudi Arabia’s national security and advance foreign agenda.
Ms. Loujain, 31, had been a relentless presence in Saudi Arabia’s limited public sphere until her arrest in 2018. Before MBS lifted the ban, Saudi Arabia was the only country that had banned women from driving. And many women like Ms. Loujain had raised voices against this state-driven discrimination. She was arrested for the first time in 2014 December while trying to drive to Saudi Arabia from the UAE. She was detained for over 70 days. But the detention did not deter Ms. Loujain, a University of British Columbia graduate, from continuing with her activism. In 2015, when Saudi women were allowed to vote and stand in elections at the municipal level for the first time, Ms. Loujain wanted to contest. But the authorities barred her. “I’ve been eliminated as a candidate for the municipal elections. I will be filing my objection via the appropriate channels,” she tweeted then.
A year later, Ms. Loujain, along with 14,000 others, signed a petition to King Salman, demanding the male guardianship system be abolished. Under Saudi law, all women were required to have a male guardian. The system gave women’s fathers, husbands, brothers or uncles the final say on their life plans. As part of the reforms initiated by the Crown Prince, the guardianship laws were partially amended in 2019, excluding women over 21 years old from the guardian system. The authorities, however, did not spare those who campaigned for abolishing the system. In 2017, a year after the petition was submitted to the King, Ms. Loujain was arrested again.
After that, Ms. Loujain moved to the UAE and joined Sorbonne University’s Abu Dhabi campus for a master’s degree programme in applied sociological research. But things didn’t go ahead as she planned. In March 2018, she was stopped by security officials while driving in Abu Dhabi.
They forcibly put her on a plane and transferred her to a prison in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, according to an account by Alia al-Hathloul, another sister of Ms. Loujain. She was released after a few days but barred from travelling abroad and warned against using social media. In May, she was formally arrested and ever since she has been in prison.
Ms. Alia, who is living in Brussels, Belgium, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times in January 2019, alleging that her sister was tortured in prison. When her parents visited Ms. Loujain in Jeddah’s Dhahban prison in August 2018, she was “shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip”. In December, she told her parents that she was tortured between May and August — she had been put in “solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder” — according to Ms. Alia. Saud bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, a former top Royal Court adviser and a close aide of MBS, was present when Ms. Loujain was tortured. Al-Qahtani was dismissed from the court in late 2018 after the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.
The imprisonment, trial and allegations of torture of one of the most famous activists in the Kingdom, who was one of TIME magazine’s ‘100 most influential people’ in 2019, has heaped pressure on Crown Prince MBS, who is promoted by the kingdom as a man of reforms. But the Saudi authorities are also wary of dissent, which could breed more dissent.
The judge who sentenced Ms. Loujain to five years and eight months, has suspended two years and 10 months of the sentence, which means, given the time she has already spent in prison, she could be released in a few months. But freedom comes with riders. she would be placed on probation for three years and barred from travelling abroad for five years, says her family.
In 2014, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and also sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” and for setting up a liberal media forum. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals. Badawi, who was arrested in 2012, had previously called for May 7 to be observed as a “day for Saudi liberals”. The first 50 lashes of his sentence were carried out in public view in Jeddah on January 9, 2015.
In April this year, Saudi Arabia’s state human rights commission said it is abolishing flogging as a punishment for crime. Before it was abolished, flogging was mandatory as a form of corporal punishment for several offences including murder, breach of peace, homosexuality, consumption or possession of alcohol, adultery, pestering girls, spending time with the opposite sex, insulting Islam and bringing in liqueur chocolates into the country, among others.
Before the ban on women drivers was lifted in 2018, any woman caught driving could also be sentenced to flogging. This form of corporal punishment could be used by judges at their discretion as an alternative or in addition to other punishments.