AN ACTIVIST who once appeared with campaigners alongside Meghan Markle and fought for the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia has been jailed for nearly six years.
Loujain al-Hathloul has already been caged inside a maximum security prison for more than two years amid claims she has been tortured behind bars.
The 31 year old was among several activists detained in 2018 on “trumped-up terror charges” including making contact with organisations “hostile” to her homeland.
International human rights groups have repeatedly called for her to be freed by her captors saying the allegations against her are “spurious” at best.
The jailing of Loujain, who posed for a Vanity Fair shoot with Meghan, comes after her conviction in a trial which earlier drew international condemnation.
On Monday, a special court set up to try terrorism cases convicted her of various charges including trying to harm national security and “advance a foreign agenda.”
Hardline judges sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison, but she could be free by March as she has already spent so long behind bars, it’s reported.
In 2016, she attended a One Young World humanitarian summit in Canada with Meghan, Emma Watson, Cher and Justin Trudeau.
In one picture Meghan was seen in a group of four posing by a lake with Loujain, the poet Fatima Bhutto and former president of Ireland Mary Robinson.
Writing about the summit at the time Meghan said: “One Young World invites young adults from all over the world who are actively working to transform the socio-political landscape by being the greater good.
“They are delegates who are speaking out against human rights violations, environmental crises, gender equality issues, discrimination and injustice. They are the change.”
The activist – who is also a friend of Amal Clooney – was also banned from travel for five years, her sister revealed, adding Hathloul cried when she was sentenced and will appeal.
“My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist,” Lina said in a statement.
“To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Cale Brown said the United States was “concerned by reports” of the sentencing.
“We’ve emphasized the importance of free expression and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia as it advances women’s rights. We look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021,” he said on Twitter.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, appeared to reaffirm the new administration plans to elevate human rights issues in relations with Riyadh.
Loujain’s sentencing “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling,” Sullivan wrote in a tweet.
“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”
The U.N. human rights office added the conviction was “deeply troubling” and called for her urgent release.
Rights groups and her family say Loujain, who campaigned for women’s right to drive and to end the kingdom’s male guardianship system, was subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding and flogging.
Saudi authorities have denied the charges.
In 2019, Loujain refused to rescind her allegations of torture in exchange for early release, her family has said.
However, acourt last week dismissed the allegations, citing a lack of evidence.
Loujain rose to prominence in 2013 when she began publicly campaigning for women’s right to drive.
Saudi officials have said the arrests of women activists were made on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.
London-based Saudi rights group ALQST said another activist, Mayaa al-Zahrani, was also convicted on Monday and given the same sentence as Loujain.
In addition, Nassimah al-Saadah was sentenced to five years in prison with two suspended in late November, according to Human Rights Watch.
The main charges against Loujain, which carried up to 20 years in prison, included seeking to change the political system, calling for an end to male guardianship, attempting to apply for a U.N. job, and communicating with international rights groups.
She was also charged with speaking to foreign diplomats and with international media about women’s rights in the kingdom, including Reuters, which declined to comment.
“The case against Loujain, based solely on her human rights activism, is a travesty of justice and reveals the depths to which they will go to root out independent voices,” said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.