RIYADH - Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul on Wednesday lost a court appeal against a prison sentence, as well as restrictions including a five-year travel ban, her family said, following her provisional release from jail.
Hathloul, 31, best known for campaigning against a decades long Saudi ban on female drivers, was detained in May 2018 with about a dozen other women –- just weeks before the ban was lifted.
In late December, a court handed Hathloul a prison term of five years and eight months for terrorism-related crimes, but a partially suspended sentence — and time already served — paved the way for her early release last month.
Hathloul was released on probation and is barred from leaving Saudi Arabia for five years.
“The judge denied the appeal and confirmed the sentence to five years and eight months in prison, which includes three years of probation and five years of a travel ban, during which Loujain cannot leave Saudi Arabia at any time,” the activist’s family said in a statement.
Saudi authorities have not officially commented on her detention, trial or release.
In one of her first public comments since her detention, Hathloul told foreign diplomats gathered outside Riyadh's anti-terrorism court ahead of the hearing, “Let's hope that the sentence has been changed or modified a little bit.”
U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to press Saudi Arabia harder on human rights and recently declassified an intelligence report into the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
A State Department spokesperson said the United States would keep pushing for the freedom of Hathoul and other women's rights activists in detention in Saudi Arabia.
“We do not believe that Ms. al-Hathloul, her family or others who have been provisionally released should be subject to travel bans or other restrictions,” the spokesperson said.
The Biden administration has “made clear that human rights will be a priority in our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia,” the spokesperson said.
Hathoul’s siblings expressed disappointment over the decision to uphold the sentence.
“The confirmation of the sentence of my sister Loujain is yet another confirmation of the abuse of power of the Saudi authorities,” said Lina al-Hathloul, the activist's sister.
Amnesty International condemned the decision as an “appalling injustice.”
“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.
“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.”
Hathloul’s siblings based overseas, including Lina, say her parents are also barred from leaving the kingdom, even though they are not charged with any crime.
Hathloul’s family has alleged the activist experienced torture and sexual harassment in detention, claims repeatedly dismissed by a Saudi court.
While some female activists detained along with Hathloul have been provisionally released, several others remain imprisoned on what campaigners describe as opaque charges.
The detentions have cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy.