Saudi woman rights activist Loujain al Hathloul has been sentenced to five years and eight months in jail after she was allegedly found guilty of spying with foreign parties and conspiring against the kingdom, according to local media. The sentencing comes more than two years after Hathloul was arrested along with dozen other women rights activists and her trial has drawn international condemnation as Riyadh faces new US scrutiny.

The Islamic state has time and again been criticized for its human rights record and Hathloul's sentencing now poses a fresh challenge to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's relationship with the US President elect Joe Biden. That said, a partially suspended sentence will allow Hathloul's release within months, relatives said.

Harming the Political System?

Loujain al Hathloul
Loujain al Hathloul YouTube Grab

Hathloul's trial began in March 2019 in Riyadh's criminal court after 10 months in detention. The sentencing, which was reported in Sabq and al-Shark al-Awsat newspapers, says that Hathloul, 31, was charged with demanding change in Saudi Arabia's political system and harming the nation's security. Hatloul, who had championed women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia, was convicted of cooperating with entities criminalized by the kingdom's anti-terrorism law, inciting regime change and seeking to disrupt public order, the court said.

However, the court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence or the time she already served since her arrest on May 15, 2018. Hence, she could be released sometime around end February or March 2021 but she could be put behind the bars again if she commits any crime.

A suspension of half of Hathloul's sentence is a result of the immense global pressure for her release and comes just days ahead of next month's inauguration of Biden, who has vowed to take a tough stance on Saudi Arabia over human rights after it largely got a free pass under President Donald Trump.

Punished for Wrong Reasons

Loujain al Hathloul
Loujain al Hathloul YouTube Grab

Hathlaoul's detention, arrest and subsequent trial and sentencing have drawn intense criticism from international quarters, with UN human rights experts calling the charges "spurious". Moreover, Hathloul's family members and several activists have said that she was subject to severe torture including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi authorities, however, have denied the charges.

Her sentencing comes weeks after a Riyadh court sentenced US-Saudi physician Walid al-Fitaihi to six years in jail, despite US pressure to release him.

This, however, isn't the first time the women's rights activist was arrested. Hathloul, who came to prominence in 2013 while campaigning for women's rights in Saudi, was arrested for the first time the following year when she attempted drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates — where she had a valid driver's license — to Saudi Arabia. Women were prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia at that time.

Loujain al Hathloul
Loujain al Hathloul driving a car in Saudi Arabia YouTube Grab

In 2016, a year after she became one of the first women to stand for municipal election in Saudi Arabia, she featured among 14,000 signatories on a petition to King Salman calling for an end to the guardianship system. Since then she has been in the bad books of the Saudi authorities.

Her second arrest took place in 2018 that drew international criticism. Hatloul was reportedly arrested in the UAE where she was studying and forcibly flown to Riyadh where she was held under house arrest before being moved to prison in May.

During her trial, Hathloul went on hunger strike for the second time in October to protest against the conditions of her detention. Her family said she was forced to abandon the hunger strike after two weeks because her jailers were waking her every two hours.