Saudi Arabia temporarily frees three women’s rights activists

After months in detention, some of the the activists jailed for their human rights campaigns granted temporary release.

Saudi Arabia has temporarily released three of the women’s rights activists held in custody for almost a year, state media has said, following a court hearing in which the detainees alleged torture and sexual harassment during interrogation.

The announcement by the SPA news agency on Thursday did not identify the three women but several reports named them as blogger Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Youssef, a retired lecturer at King Saud University, and academic Rokaya al-Mohareb.

They were freed following the second hearing on Wednesday of their high-profile trial that foreign reporters and diplomats were barred from attending. The women face charges that rights organisations say relate to contact with international media and human rights groups.

In its report, SPA said Riyadh’s criminal court “indicated that the temporary release was decided after it studied their requests submitted during the trial sessions”.

It added that the court would continue to look into their cases and that the release was conditional on their attendance at their trials until a final decision is reached.

A relative of one of the women told the AFP news agency that the women will still have to appear in court when the trial resumes on April 3.

More than 11 activists were arrested last May and those on trial include rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul and university professor Hatoon al-Fassi.

On Wednesday, the women offered their defence at the hearing, alleging torture and sexual harassment during interrogation, according to reports citing courtroom sources.


Some of the women wept and consoled each other, while they and their family members gathered before a three-judge panel as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, as well as flogging and groping them in detention, two people with access to the trial told the AFP.

At least one of the women tried to commit suicide following her alleged mistreatment, a close relative said.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International‘s Middle East research director, said the women had had only two hours to prepare a defence with lawyers and their families before appearing in court.

“What we know is that they [the women] have court-appointed defence lawyers, we don’t know that all the women have accepted these lawyers but it is absolutely their right to be appointing their own lawyers in this defence,” Maalouf told Al Jazeera on Thursday

The Saudi government is facing intense international scrutiny over the country’s human rights record. It denies the women were tortured or harassed.

Sweeping crackdown

The women were arrested last year in a sweeping crackdown on campaigners just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists. 

They had long campaigned for the right to drive and abolish the conservative kingdom’s male guardianship system. 

Some of the charges against the women fell under a section of Saudi Arabia’s sweeping cybercrime law, which carries prison sentences of up to five years.

Loujain al-Hathloul campaigned for women's right to drive [Marieke Wijntjes/Handout via Reuters]
Loujain al-Hathloul campaigned for women’s right to drive [Marieke Wijntjes/Handout via Reuters]

The overseas-based brother of al-Hathloul has alleged that Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was fired over the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, oversaw the torture of his sister.

Crown Prince Mohammed has courted the West to support ambitious economic and social reforms, but his reputation was tarnished following Khashoggi’s murder, which sparked an international furore.

The United Nations as well as three dozen countries – including all 28 European Union member states, Canada and Australia – have called on Saudi Arabia to free the activists.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both raised the issue during recent visits to Riyadh.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies