A Saudi court has rejected an appeal by prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul that would have allowed her to travel freely, her family and supporters said.
The 31-year-old was sentenced in December to five years and eight months in prison on what critics have described as politically motivated charges, but was released in February after serving more than 1,000 days behind bars. She was appealing for her sentence to be overturned and a five-year travel ban lifted.
On her way into the appeals hearing Wednesday, Hathloul told reporters she hoped Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court would change her sentence – her first public comments since her arrest in 2018. The court, however, ruled that the original sentence should stand.
“The judge denied the appeal and confirmed the sentence to five years and eight months in prison which includes 3 years of probation and 5 years of a travel ban during which Loujain cannot leave Saudi Arabia at any time,” according to a statement by her campaign.
Hathloul was detained in May 2018 during a sweep that targeted other well-known opponents of the kingdom’s since-rescinded law barring women from driving. She had also challenged other legal restrictions on Saudi women enforced under the kingdom’s restrictive male guardianship system.
She told her family she had been tortured and sexually abused in prison – allegations Riyadh has repeatedly denied – and her detention was condemned by the United Nations and international rights groups.
Hathloul’s sentence, according to her campaign, includes restrictions signed by her that state she “cannot speak publicly about her case or reveal any details regarding prison nor celebrate her release on a public level.”
In a statement in December, Hathloul’s family said she would remain on probation for three years, during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity.
Her release in February came less than a week after the White House called on the kingdom to release political prisoners, including women’s rights activists. US President Joe Biden has vowed to pressure Saudi Arabia into improving its rights record, marking a departure from the Trump administration, which was reluctant to criticize the kingdom’s crackdown on dissent.
The terrorism court convicted Hathloul on charges of harming national security, seeking to change the Saudi political system, and using her relations with foreign governments and rights groups to “pressure the Kingdom to change its laws and systems,” according to a charge sheet her family published in December.
UN experts have called the charges against Hathloul “spurious.” In a six-page charge sheet for Hathloul’s case, seen by CNN, a section entitled “crimes committed” includes activism against the kingdom’s restrictive male guardianship laws, along with contact with foreign journalists and diplomats.
The charges also relied on a series of alleged confessions, according to the documents, which state that Hathloul admitted to applying for a job at the UN along with confessing to being in contact with the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
For much of her imprisonment, Hathloul detailed her hardships to her parents during their prison visits. Those allegations were later made public by three of her siblings who live outside the kingdom, and were corroborated by the court testimony of other female activists.
Hathloul said she was sexually assaulted and tortured while in detention, including waterboarding, flogging and electrocution, according to multiple statements released by her family and supporters.
Saudi authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of torture and sexual abuse in their prisons.
According to her family, Hathloul has twice gone on hunger strike – in protest at her prison conditions, and because she was denied communication with her relatives.
Hathloul’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, who has been a driving force behind an international campaign for her release, shared a photo of her sister going into court on Wednesday and reacted to the ruling.
“The international community should be outraged at this judgment and really take time to study their conscience as they continue to do business with Saudi Arabia,” Lina Al-Hathloul said Wednesday, according to the campaign.
CNN’s Mostafa Salem reported from Abu Dhabi, Hamdi Alkhshali from Atlanta and Eliza Mackintosh from London. Tamara Qiblawi and Kara Fox contributed to this report.