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Saudi Arabia Sentences Prominent Women's Rights Activist To Nearly 6 Years In Prison

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced one of the country's most prominent women's rights activists to nearly six years in prison. Loujain al-Hathloul is best known for campaigning for the right of Saudi women to drive. She was arrested in 2018, shortly before the Saudi government legalized driving for women. She was convicted on terrorism-related charges. During her time awaiting trial, al-Hathloul's family says she was tortured and went on two hunger strikes to protest the conditions of her detainment. The family also says Loujain will file an appeal against the ruling. Her sister, Alia al-Hathloul, joins us now from Brussels. Welcome.

ALIA AL-HATHLOUL: Thank you.

CHANG: So may I ask, how did your sister first react to the sentencing?

AL-HATHLOUL: She was extremely disappointed. And she was really crying a lot because she cannot bear the idea of being considered as a terrorist because in all her life what she asked for is justice, justice for women, justice for Saudi people in Saudi Arabia. So she is far from being a terrorist. That's why I think she is very courageous to do an appeal because she believes that she needs to make sure that her innocence is proved.

CHANG: What can you tell us about Loujain's health at this point? I know that she went on a two-week hunger strike in October. How is she doing now?

AL-HATHLOUL: Physically, she is still very weak. When you see her, you can tell she is not very healthy. However, she is very strong. She still have convictions and faith to go and to do another fight in order to prove that she is innocent.

CHANG: Now, I do want to talk about this conviction. It comes under a broad anti-terrorism law in the country. Can you tell us more about what precisely was she found guilty of?

AL-HATHLOUL: There are very broad charges, for example, saying that she is advocating on social media for women's right to drive. And one of the charges was because she was applying for a job at the United Nations. And many other charges related to her activism to advocate for women's rights. So how they considered those charges as a terrorist, it's really very hard to make the link.

What we can understand is that, for example, they are targeting more the fact that she was in contact with NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and also because she was in contact with diplomats, for example, the U.K. embassy and representation of the European Union. And what is funny and the charges that they consider that those contacts are contacts with enemies, though U.K. and the European Union are one of the most important allies for Saudi Arabia.

CHANG: Well, you tweeted that the judge suspended two years and 10 months from Loujain's sentencing. So in addition to the time that she has already served, she could theoretically be free in two months. But how likely is that, you think?

AL-HATHLOUL: As I said, she is very courageous because she didn't accept this decision. And she is doing an appeal against this decision. So it means that she's taking also a risk. I mean, if I were her, of course, I would accept the judgment. And I say, OK, I see the Saudi authorities would like to get rid of this file. They would like just to open a new page and say, OK, she is released, she is convicted and everyone is happy. But she didn't accept this cover-up. She wants to really to go till the end and make sure that she obtains her rights and she defends her innocence.

CHANG: OK. Well, you have been publicly calling for your sister's release, but you now live in Brussels. And another part of Loujain's sentence is that she will be banned from leaving Saudi Arabia for five years. I'm just wondering, how hopeful are you about reuniting with your sister anytime soon?

AL-HATHLOUL: Travel ban in Saudi Arabia, it's becoming a very common policy, so many people are travel banned, starting with my parents who are on travel ban since March 2018. So I haven't seen my parents for more than three years.

CHANG: Wow.

AL-HATHLOUL: I think first Loujain needs to be released. Then we try to find ways in order to reunite with my family, which is something I really, really hope. I look forward to it.

CHANG: Alia al-Hathloul is the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul a Saudi women's rights activist who has been sentenced to almost six years in prison. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

AL-HATHLOUL: Thank you very much, and happy New Year. And I wish 2021 a year full of justice and a healthy year. Thank you.

CHANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.