Saudi sentencing of women's activist sets up Riyadh for a clash with Biden

Saudi sentencing of women's activist sets up Riyadh for a clash with Biden
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The sentencing of Saudi woman activist Loujain al-Hathloul to nearly six years in prison will likely mean her conditional release in March. But if Riyadh thinks this will make Loujain, who is not American, a non-issue for the incoming Biden administration, it is almost certainly wrong. 

The 31-year-old graduate of the University of British Columbia has caught the imagination of critics of Saudi Arabia almost as much as Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Both seem to have fallen foul of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS. 

Loujain’s particular sin appears to have been advocating for women to be allowed to drive. She was detained in May 2018, a month before MbS announced the relaxation of the driving rule, an advance he wanted to have attributed to his progressive leadership style, rather than the result of social and political pressure.


In the past few months, and particularly weeks, a bizarre legal drama has taken place in Saudi Arabia, probably in parallel with much diplomatic plain-talking between senior officials in Riyadh and Washington. Loujain’s trial began in March 2019 but a hearing set for April 2019 was postponed without a stated reason, and then indefinitely delayed in May 2020 because of the coronavirus epidemic. In October, she started a hunger strike, demanding contact with her family, and in November the Saudi ambassador in London said the kingdom was considering releasing her before the G20 summit that Saudi Arabia hosted virtually later that month.

Although Loujain’s case had been heard in a criminal court at one time, today’s verdict was in a national security court and her crimes were categorized as being against the anti-terrorism law.  They were reported as “seeking to change the country’s political system” and supporting a “foreign agenda inside the kingdom using the internet.” Earlier reports of what this might mean have included that she visited British and Dutch embassies and had applied for a job with the United Nations.

She now has been sentenced to five years and eight months, of which two years and 10 months were suspended “out of consideration for her conditions.” Based on the May 2018 date of her original detention, the arithmetic produces a release date of March, or perhaps February. The suspended sentence is nullified if she commits any crime within the next three years. She also faces a five-year travel ban. Both the prosecutor and Loujain have a right to appeal the sentence within 30 days. 

Given these conditions, it is likely that Loujain will appeal. An earlier planned release a couple of years ago was reportedly cancelled after Saudi officials insisted she say on video that she had not been tortured. (Last week a Saudi court cleared officials of torturing Loujain in detention, saying there was no evidence to support the allegations.) According to Reuters, she told her family that she had been subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. One report says Saudi al-Qahtani, an aide to MbS also involved in Khashoggi’s death, was a witness to some of this abuse.  

A dozen or so other women activists were detained with Loujain and face trial. Washington also has been pressuring Riyadh to release a Saudi physician with U.S. nationality, Walid al-Fitaihi, who was sentenced three weeks ago to six years in prison, apparently for social media activity and gaining American citizenship without Riyadh’s permission.

In Saudi terms, “human rights” appears to be a red line, a domestic issue about which Riyadh will not countenance any foreign pressure. Referring to MbS, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE told journalist Bob Woodward after Khashoggi was murdered, “I saved his ass.” Loujain’s ultimate fate now could be for President-elect BidenJoe BidenHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Democrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Former Israeli prime minister advises Iran to 'cool down' amid nuclear threats MORE to decide. His national security adviser, Jake SullivanJake SullivanHouse Republicans raise concerns about new Chinese tech companies Biden faces day of reckoning on China and Taiwan Hillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage MORE, tweeted that Loujain’s sentencing “is unjust and troubling. As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.