One of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists will appeal a nearly six-year jail sentence handed down Monday as her family hailed her courage.
The activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, broke down in tears as a Saudi judge sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison, her elder sister told NBC News on Tuesday.
The sister, Alia al-Hathloul, called the sentence "outrageous" and said she feared that the appeal could result in a harsher sentence. But said she was heartened by messages from supporters and well-wishers.
"I understood that no one believes in this verdict or this court, so it makes me feel relieved a bit for my sister," she said, speaking from Belgium where she lives.
“She wants to be considered innocent. This is her main objective,” she said. “She’s very courageous. ... If it was my case I wouldn’t do that.”
Loujain Al-Hathloul was convicted of agitating for change in Saudi Arabia while serving a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order and cooperating with individuals and institutions that were involved in crimes under anti-terror laws, according to the state-linked Saudi news site Sabq.
NBC News was unable to verify the charges against her.
“She was extremely disappointed. She was crying a lot,” Alia al-Hathloul said. “She’s considered a terrorist.”
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Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said the charges leveled against Loujain Al-Hathloul were entirely related to her human rights work and have called for her immediate and unconditional release.
Al-Hathloul made a name for herself as one of the few women to openly call for women’s right to drive in the deeply conservative kingdom, as well for an end to the country’s restrictive male guardianship system that had long limited women’s freedom of movement. She was arrested along with other female activists in May 2018, just weeks before the kingdom ended a decadeslong ban on women driving.
A spokesperson for Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Media told NBC News on Monday that two years and 10 months of Al-Hathloul’s sentence had been suspended and that the sentence was backdated to May 2018. This means she could be released by March, according to members of her family.
Alia al-Hathloul said Tuesday that her sister planned to appeal not just the court’s sentence but another ruling that said she was not subjected to torture while in detention. Loujain al-Hathloul’s family say she has been subjected to electric shocks and has been sexually harassed.
Rights groups have said that other detained women’s rights activists have also been subjected to torture and sexual harassment. Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations.
Alia al-Hathloul said that her parents were also strong and optimistic but that recent weeks had been particularly tiring for them, as the Saudi authorities appeared to be rushing through her sister’s case despite it having been informally suspended for more than a year and a half at the regular criminal court. Last month, the case was moved to Saudi Arabia’s notorious Specialized Criminal Court, which specializes in handling terrorism cases.
“It gives me the impression that they want to get rid of her file, they want to save face,” Alia al-Hathloul said. “They don’t want to look like a loser.”
Alaa Al-Siddiq, executive director of London-based group ALQST, which advocates for human rights in Saudi Arabia, suggested that Saudi authorities may have given Loujain al-Hathloul a lesser sentence to appease the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Before the court’s ruling Monday, Al-Hathloul faced a potential sentence of 20 years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch.
“They want a fresh start with Joe Biden,” said Al-Siddiq.
Saudi Arabia has enjoyed close relations with President Donald Trump's administration but it is expected to have a frostier relationship with Biden’s team. Biden has pledged to "reassess" the U.S. relationship with the oil-rich kingdom and has described Saudi Arabia as a "pariah."
However, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a human rights organization founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi shortly before his death, said that the kingdom’s decision to convict Al-Hathloul sent a message to the world that Saudi Arabia is going to do as it pleases.