Court Fails To Overturn Loujain al-Hathloul’s Sentence

On March 10, Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s attempt to appeal her sentence was denied by Saudi courts. Hathloul was sentenced to six years imprisonment in December for charges related to national security, although critics argue that the charges were politically motivated. She was released in mid-February but is subject to three years probation and a five-year travel ban.

Hathloul told reporters that she was hopeful that Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court would overturn her sentence. Since Hathloul is also forbidden to communicate with journalists and use social media, the statement was the first since her release.  Loujain’s sister Lina Al-Hathloul subsequently tweeted that the court upheld her sister’s sentence, adding “[this] means SA confirms considering the UK, the EU, and the Netherlands ‘terrorist entities’ and contacting them a ‘terrorist act.'” 

The conditions of Hathloul’s release provoked a strong reaction from human rights activists and critics. Hathloul’s probation leaves her vulnerable to re-arrest at any time, for any perceived offence. She is forbidden to continue her activism or communicate with the press, a measure which disempowers her from seeking justice or advocating for systemic changes. Further, the travel ban prevents her from seeking asylum or reuniting with her family. Dubbed the ‘invisible leash’ by activists, travel bans have been co-opted as a tactic for restricting dissidents’ freedom of movement under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Hathloul’s release was likely an attempt to appease the Biden administration, who have made it clear that they will not be as tolerant of Saudi Arabia’s human rights transgressions as the Trump administration. Biden has already enacted a temporary ban on arms dealings with Saudia Arabia and has publicly denounced Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the death of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. In the wake of Hathloul’s release, human rights activist Abdullah Alouadh from DAWN argues that the U.S. ought to exert greater political pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its treatment of dissidents. He recommends the use of targeted sanctions to lift the travel ban, among other measures. Hathloul’s sister Lina Al-Hathloul echoed this sentiment when she commented on the failure of her sister’s sentence to be overturned: “The international community should be outraged at this judgment and really take time to study their conscience as they continue to do business with Saudi Arabia.” No such actions have been taken yet. 

Cassie Ransom