Mon, December 28, 2020, 11:53 AM GMT+1
DUBAI (Reuters) – A Saudi court on Monday sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison, local media reported, in a trial that has drawn international condemnation and as Riyadh faces new U.S. scrutiny.
Hathloul, 31, has been held since 2018 following her arrest along with at least a dozen other women’s rights activist.
The verdict, reported by Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat newspapers, poses an early challenge to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who has described Riyadh as a “pariah” for its human rights record.
Hathloul was charged with seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national security, local media said. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, or time served since Hathloul was arrested on May 15, 2018, the newspapers said.
United Nations human rights experts have called the charges against her spurious, and along with leading rights groups and lawmakers in the United States and Europe have called for her release.
The detentions of women activitsts occured shortly before and after the kingdom lifted a ban on women driving, which many activists had long championed, as part of reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that were also accompanied by a crackdown on dissent and an anti-corruption purge.
Hathloul’s sentencing came just nearly three weeks after a Riyadh court jailed U.S.-Saudi physician Walid al-Fitaihi for six years, despite U.S. pressure to release him, in a case rights groups have called politically motivated.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Raya Jalabi; writing by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Gareth Jones and Angus MacSwan)