RIYADH (Reuters) – A Saudi court on Wednesday upheld the original sentence of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who had championed women’s right to drive and for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.
Hathloul was sentenced in December to nearly six years in prison under broad cybercrime and counterterrorism laws after a lengthy trial that drew widespread international condemnation, but she was released last month having served half of her custodial sentence.
Walking to the courthouse on Wednesday morning before the appeals hearing, Hathloul, 31, told reporters she hoped Riyadh’s Special Criminal Court would amend her sentence – her first public comments since her 2018 arrest. The court, however, ruled that it would stand.
Rights groups condemned the 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,” said Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf.
Hathloul was detained in May 2018 and sentenced in December to nearly six years in prison on charges that United Nations rights experts called spurious.
The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, most of which had already been served. Hathloul, whose release is conditional, remains under a five-year travel ban.
Hathloul rose to prominence in 2013 when she began publicly campaigning for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy.
Saudi law had previously banned women from driving but it was changed in June 2018, allowing them to do so.
She was arrested for the first time in 2014 while attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates – where she had a valid driver’s licence – to Saudi Arabia.
She spent 73 days in a women’s detention facility, an experience she later said helped shape her campaigning against the conservative kingdom’s male guardianship system.
In recent years, the kingdom has chipped away at the heavily criticised guardianship system, which assigned each woman a male relative – a father, brother, husband or son – whose approval is needed for various big decisions throughout a woman’s life.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which has taken a tough stance over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, has urged Riyadh to release political prisoners including women’s rights activists.
Washington said earlier this month it was encouraged to see some activists – including Hathloul – had been released. But it urged Saudi Arabia to lift travel bans, commute sentences, and resolve cases including those of the women’s rights activists.
Saudi authorities released two activists with U.S. citizenship on bail in February pending trials on terrorism-related charges.
In January, a Saudi appeals court nearly halved a six-year prison sentence for a U.S.-Saudi physician and suspended the rest, meaning he did not have to return to jail.
(Reporting by Reuters television and Dubai newsroom; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)