Five years and eight months for the Saudi activist who claimed the right to drive a car

Loujain al-Hathloul has already served two and a half years in maximum security prison. The authorities charged her with violating national security rules. The sentence is suspended for the last two years and eight months. The young woman could be released by March. A Riyadh strategy to "save face".

Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - A Saudi court has sentenced the 31-year-old activist Loujain al-Hathloul in the forefront of women's right to drive in the Wahhabi kingdom to five years and eight months. The young woman was arrested a few weeks after the lifting of the ban, which took place in June 2018.

 In recent weeks she had started a hunger strike to protest against prison conditions, denouncing the restrictions and abuses to which she is subject and receiving the solidarity of a UN committee that had appealed to King Salman.

The activist has already spent two and a half years in a maximum security prison, raising protests and indignation from international NGOs and human rights groups. However, yesterday a Special Court for Crimes Related to Terrorism found her guilty of various offenses, including endangering national security and pursuing a foreign agenda.

In fact, the Saudi authorities have charged her with violating national security rules in the context of a larger operation aimed at cracking down on activist movements, especially women's movements. According to relatives, the woman was in solitary confinement for three months following her arrest and was subjected to electric shocks, lashes and sexual abuse.

The judges, after reading the sentence, condoned two years and 10 months by "suspension". According to family members, this would allow her to be released within the next two months, at the latest in March. Regarding the trial, activists and experts report that it did not respect the minimum international standards on the right to defence.

In a message on twitter, Sister Lina al-Hathloul confirms the probable release for March. The judges, continues the woman, would also have imposed a ban on expatriation for at least five years. According to several commentators, the verdict of conviction, with the suspended sentence, represents "an exit strategy to save face", imposing the sentence but responding in some way to the international pressure campaign aimed at her release.

Saudi Arabia is governed by an absolute Sunni monarchy, based on a Wahhabi fundamentalist view of Islam. Over the past two years, the Crown Prince’s social reforms included granting women the right to drive cars and to attend sporting events in designated areas of stadiums. However, the authorities have also cracked down on senior officials, business people, activists and critical voices, most notably in the Jamal Khashoggi affair, raising questions about the real extent of change.