US president affirms commitment to Saudi defence, calls for diplomacy in Yemen and praises release of rights activists.
Rights group Amnesty International has condemned a Saudi court’s decision to uphold the original sentence of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was released from jail last month after serving half of her six-year sentencing.
The court granted al-Hathloul provisional release, and placed her under a five-year travel ban. The Saudi activist had filed an appeal to amend the verdict, but the court on Wednesday refused to amend the judgement.
Al-Hathloul, who championed women’s right to drive and for an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, was arrested on May 15, 2018, along with 11 other women rights activists. She was held without charges or trial for the first 10 months of her detention.
She 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.
“Today’s verdict is just the latest demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s intent to continue crushing all forms of dissent inside the country,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa said on Thursday.
“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.”
Al-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 decisions throughout a woman’s life.
US 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 al-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 US 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 US-Saudi physician and suspended the rest, meaning he did not have to return to jail.