A Saudi verdict shows that U.S. pressure for human rights works

A Saudi verdict shows that U.S. pressure for human rights works

16:09 - SAUDI ARABIA on Monday announced a prison term for a women’s rights activist that was a gross violation of human rights — but also a demonstration that outside pressure can move the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Editorial

A state security court in Riyadh sentenced Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, to five years and eight months in prison for such “crimes” as discussing her advocacy for women with Western diplomats and applying for a job at the United Nations. According to her family, even those charges were not substantiated: The only evidence presented at her closed trial were tweets advocating women’s right to drive and criticizing the male guardianship system that restricts women’s movements.

Yet Ms. Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018 and was subjected to brutal torture, may soon be released. The judge suspended part of her sentence and gave her credit for time served; her family said she could be free in about two months, though she will be on probation for three years and banned from travelling abroad for five — provisions meant to deter further activism. Her prospective release — and the regime’s rush to complete her trial in the past month after allowing it to languish for years — almost certainly reflects the pressure on Mohammed bin Salman from a panoply of international actors, including President-elect Joe Biden and senior Republican as well as Democratic senators.

For four years, President Trump refused to pressure Mohammed bin Salman on human rights cases, even as dozens of peaceful activists and journalists, including several U.S. citizens, were jailed. After exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist and U.S. resident, was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Mr. Trump bragged that rather than hold the crown prince accountable, he had “saved his ass.”

Ms. Hathloul’s treatment offers a sign of how a different U.S. policy can produce results. Mr. Biden has said forthrightly that he will reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and “defend the rights of activists, political dissidents and journalists.” In recent weeks, several senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho), tweeted in support of Ms. Hathloul. The crown prince got the message: Two Saudi officials told the Wall Street Journal that the reduced sentence came at the direction of Mohammed bin Salman.

That doesn’t mean the case, and those of a number of other women still in prison or on trial, should be forgotten. Ms. Hathloul was abducted from the United Arab Emirates; she was held for 35 days in a secret prison, where she was beaten, given electric shocks and sexually harassed. The abuse was overseen by one of Mohammed bin Salman’s closest aides, Saud al-Qahtani, who later supervised the Khashoggi murder. The crown prince has rejected U.S. demands that his aide be brought to justice, and Saudi authorities this month hastily reviewed and dismissed Ms. Hathloul’s charges of torture. The Biden administration should apply sanctions to all those found to be involved in this and other human rights cases — and the crown prince should not be immune.