New York, NY, December 29, 2020 – PEN America condemns the conviction and sentence of five years and eight months handed down to Saudi women’s rights activist and 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write awardee Loujain Al-Hathloul in a deeply flawed trial that concluded today. The sentence handed down today includes a suspended portion of 2 years and 10 months, which in addition to time already served in pre-trial detention of 958 days, could enable her to be released in several months’ time.
“The conviction of Loujain Al-Hathloul is a blatant attack on the most basic human rights of all people living in Saudi Arabia, and a special insult against all those who have fought for women’s rights in the kingdom. While we are relieved, for her and her family’s sake, that the sentence was not longer, it does not make her conviction any less horrifying, and the prospect of continued constraints on her freedom after release is completely unacceptable,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America.
“The charges levied against her are bogus, and are clearly a retaliatory attempt to silence one of the kingdom’s most influential female voices,” Lopez continued. “Al-Hathloul was detained for using her voice to advocate a policy change granting women the right to drive, now legal for more than two years. In fact, the Saudi leadership now takes credit for reforms that Al-Hathloul demanded, even as they punish her for the key role that she and other activists have played in spurring social and legal change. Saudi authorities show their cards by equating Al-Hathloul’s case with a crime of national security; they recognize that freedom of expression is a powerful driver of change and independent thought—and they see that as a threat. While the Saudi government has reformed the law, they have not released Al-Hathloul. Instead, in clear retaliation for her dissent, they have abused Al-Hathloul, jailed her in the most dire conditions, denied her contact with the outside world, and doubled down on her detention. Her absurd conviction is further evidence that the Saudi Arabian government continues to be one of the most egregious human rights abusers in the world. We will be watching to ensure Saudi authorities adhere to this timeline for Al-Hathloul’s release, but we also continue to call for this unjust sentence to be overturned and for Al-Hathloul to be unconditionally and immediately released.”
In late November, Al-Hathloul’s case was transferred to a specialized anti-terrorism court where she was accused of contacting “states unfriendly to the kingdom and with providing classified information,” on top of extant charges of sedition. Al-Hathloul has been detained since May 2018 in dire conditions, often incommunicado, and had allegedly been subject to torture. While she could be released next spring, she is required to serve three years of probation during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity, and is subject to a five-year travel ban.
Al-Hathloul received the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award alongside fellow writer-activists Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman Al-Nafjan; Abdulaziz also remains in prison, and Al-Nafjan continues to face charges. PEN America recently hosted a G20 Counter-Summit, highlighting the Saudi regime’s egregious human rights record, pushing back against the kingdom’s attempts to obfuscate its rights violations, and honoring the voices of those the regime has attempted to silence. In PEN America’s inaugural Freedom to Write Index, Saudi Arabia ranked second globally in terms of writers detained, with 38 jailed in 2019.
Founded in 1922, PEN America is the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that make up the PEN International network. PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others. www.pen.org