Washington, D.C. – Freedom Now strongly condemns the sentencing of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul to 5 years and 8 months in prison.
On December 28, the Specialized Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over terrorism-related crimes, convicted Alhathloul of numerous charges related to her human rights activism. The court delivered a suspended sentence of 2 years and 10 months as well as a five year travel ban. With time served, Alhathloul should be released by March 2021. However, she is subject to three years of probation following her release.
“Today’s conviction of Loujain Alhathloul is outrageous and shameful,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “Although she may soon be released, her freedom is by no means guaranteed. Loujain will be unable to reunite with many of her family members. She may again be arrested for the slightest criticism of the regime. And she must live with the physical and psychological trauma of torture. Saudi Arabia may consider this a solution to its public relations problems, but the world is still watching. We call for Loujain’s conviction to be vacated, for the travel ban lifted, and for her torturers to be held accountable.”
Loujain Alhathloul has campaigned for gender equality in Saudi Arabia since 2013. She worked tirelessly to eliminate the government’s ban on female drivers, and has spoken out against the male guardianship system and domestic violence. She has advanced this cause alongside other activists by raising global awareness, supporting international human rights monitoring, and organizing peaceful protest activities.
In response to her outspoken calls for reform, the Saudi government has sought to silence Alhathloul. She was arrested in December 2014 for attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia and again in June 2017 on unspecified charges. In March 2018, she was forcibly removed from the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living, to Saudi Arabia and detained for several days.
On May 15, 2018, armed state security officers raided Alhathloul’s home in Riyadh and arrested her without a warrant. Over the next three days, the Saudi government arrested at least a dozen women’s rights activists. Ironically, the crackdown coincided with the government’s decision to lift the driving ban on women; a decision welcomed by many of the activists.
Alhathloul was kept incommunicado for the first 35 days of her detention during which she was tortured by Saudi officials, who whipped, beat, electrocuted, and sexually harassed her. Alhathloul’s parents have stated that her “thighs were blackened by bruises” when they were finally allowed to visit her in December 2018, and that she “was shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to walk or sit normally.” In August 2019, Saudi State Security officials offered to release Alhathloul if she recorded a video denying that she had been tortured. She refused this offer.
Alhathloul’s trial was subjected to repeated delays. It was suspended in May 2020 and did not resume until November, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saudi government also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to stop Alhathloul’s communication with her family between March and August 2020. When her parents were finally allowed to visit after four months of incommunicado detention, Alhathloul disclosed she staged a six-day hunger strike to compel the authorities to reinstate phone calls and visits. However, authorities again denied Alhathloul access to her family between September 9 and October 26. In response, Alhathloul staged a two-week hunger strike to protest this treatment, which greatly impacted her health.
In June 2020, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Alhathloul to be released in response to a legal petition filed by Freedom Now. The UN concluded that “the criminal charges for which she has been indicted and tried clearly concern her internationally renowned public campaign.”