WASHINGTON — The United States voiced concern Monday over Saudi Arabia’s imposition of a prison sentence on prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul, in a low-key response as US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration vowed a firm stance on human rights.
Hathloul, 31, a long-time campaigner for women’s right to drive in the ultra-conservative kingdom, was sentenced to five years and eight months for terrorism-related crimes — a partially suspended sentence that will allow her release within months.
Senior US leaders did not comment but the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Cale Brown, said the United States was “concerned by reports” of her sentence.
“We’ve emphasized the importance of free expression and peaceful activism in Saudi Arabia as it advances women’s rights,” Brown wrote on Twitter.
“We look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021.”
Jake Sullivan, who will take over as national security adviser when Biden is sworn in on January 20, by contrast called the sentence “unjust and troubling.”
“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he tweeted.
US President Donald Trump is a close ally of Saudi Arabia who has hailed the oil-rich kingdom’s purchases of US weapons, shared hostility to Iran and recent gestures toward Israel.
Trump refrained from harsh action even after a US-based writer, Jamal Khashoggi, was killed and dismembered in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate following his critiques of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Amid outrage over Khashoggi’s death and Saudi Arabia’s devastating military campaign in Yemen, Biden during the campaign vowed a re-evaluation of the relationship with the kingdom.
Hathloul was convicted of cooperating with entities criminalized in the kingdom’s anti-terrorism law. Her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, said that she would be released in approximately two months as she has already been jailed since May 2018.