Saudi court upholds sentence against Loujain

Several activists released but cases remain

An appeals court in Saudi Arabia has upheld the original sentence of prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul who called for lifting the ban on driving and ending the male guardianship system. She was sentenced in December to nearly six years in prison after a lengthy trial that was widely criticised by human rights groups and Western governments, but she was released last month.

As she walked to the courtroom on Wednesday, Loujain stopped to chat briefly with diplomats from the United States and other embassies who were not allowed to enter. “Let’s hope that the sentence has been changed or modified a little bit,” she said from behind a pale pink face mask with white daisies and bees. “We’ll see how it goes. Thank you so much for your support.”

This was Loujain’s second court appearance since she was released. She left disappointed after the judges ruled that the original sentence against her would stand. The Specialised Criminal Court suspended half of the 68 months of her sentence and she was released after already serving that period. Her release is conditional and she remains under a five-year travel ban.

Advocacy groups have condemned the appeals court’s decision.

“By failing to quash Loujain al-Hathloul’s conviction, the Saudi Arabian authorities have clearly demonstrated that they consider peaceful activism a crime and consider activists to be traitors or spies,” Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “Loujain al-Hathloul is a brave human rights defender, she should be celebrated for her peaceful activism in the country - not branded a criminal.”

The 31-year-old Loujain gained prominence for being a vocal member of the Saudi women’s right to drive movement seven years ago. She was arrested for the first time in 2014 after a daring attempt to drive from the United Arab Emirates to the kingdom and was held for 73 days.

Saudi Arabia has in recent years embraced many of the changes that Loujain campaigned for as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushed an ambitious social liberalisation programme, including removing several restrictions from the male guardian system and lifting the ban on women driving in June 2018. She and several other activists were detained a few weeks earlier. Many of them have been released while they continue to be on trial.

Among the women who remain detained is Samar Badawi. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken gave her a special mention during his speech at the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony this week. “She has been imprisoned since 2018, along with other women’s rights activists, and we join other nations in calling for their release,” he said about Badawi who won the award in 2012.

When Loujain was released last month, I wondered whether her brother and two sisters residing abroad might shift the tactics of their campaign on her behalf while she is still on probation and banned from travel. The siblings have notably not toned down their criticism as they continue to try to keep her case in the spotlight and maintain international pressure that was considered central to her release from prison. “As long as she cannot campaign for women’s rights, as long as she cannot be an activist again, things won’t change honestly,” Loujain’s sister Lina told reporters after her release.

“MBS is a real criminal and I consider him as a war criminal,” her other sister Alia tweeted Tuesday as the crown prince received a series of foreign officials earlier this week. “Only criminal Head of States accept to meet with him.”

The White House said it was looking to recalibrate relations with the kingdom and announced a series of steps since Biden took office, including the end of American support for the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen, pausing some arms sales to the kingdom and releasing an intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The grisly murder that took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was shocking and many observers thought it could prompt a radical shift in the kingdom’s dealings with its critics, but that notion proved to be short-lived and premature as authorities launched more crackdowns, including the arrests of several writers and young intellectuals in April 2019.

Several men and women from that group have been released in recent weeks. The releases, including two dual US-Saudi citizens, are seen as a gesture to the Biden administration. But the pursuit of Saudi critics abroad does not appear to have stopped, with a couple of cases making the headlines in recent weeks. The first involves a dissident in Canada who mysteriously disappeared before resurfacing in the kingdom, raising fears among members of the opposition that he may share information about them with the authorities. 

The second involves a man named Osama al-Hasani, a dual Saudi-Australian man who has been held in Morocco since early February. A court in the kingdom has already sentenced him in absentia to two years in prison on a theft charge which he denies, but his legal team and family believe he is being targeted for his criticism of the government. His name is not known among opposition figures, which fuelled speculation that he might be connected to one of the anonymous dissident Twitter accounts.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly requested his extradition via Interpol under a little-known 1983 Arab League mechanism called the “Riyadh Arab Agreement for Judicial Cooperation”. A Moroccan court has accepted the Saudi request and decided to extradite Hasani, his wife told Reuters. A source who attended a hearing in the case previously told the news agency that the defence had pointed out that Saudi documents mention that Hasani was born to a Moroccan father, which makes him a Moroccan under Morocco’s laws. Moroccan law prevents the extradition of Moroccans to other countries, the source quoted lawyers saying.

Hasani’s London-based barrister, Haydee Dijkstal, told ABC News she is concerned about his safety if extradited. “Those concerns are based on evidence of a pattern by Saudi Arabia of violating those rights for detainees, and particularly for detainees who are detained and arrested in Saudi Arabia for their activism or for their expressed opposition to the government,” she said.

The Australian government said Thursday it was in contact with Moroccan authorities about the case and that an Australian embassy official had visited him.“The circumstances of his detention and possible extradition are of concern to Australia,” a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

Hasani’s wife told the Guardian that she still holds hope he may not be extradited. “I still hope a miracle will happen and I still have trust that this country has wise people in charge, led by the king of Morocco, that will not allow this to happen,” she said.