Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul released from prison

Prominent women’s rights activist, who campaigned for women’s right to drive and to end kingdom’s male guardianship system, spent more than 1,000 days in prison.

An image of Loujain al-Hathloul posted by her sister Lina al-Hathloul on Twitter [Lina al-Hathloul]

Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from a Saudi prison after nearly three years behind bars, according to her family.

“Loujain is at home !!!!!!” her sister Lina tweeted on Wednesday., posting a screenshot of al-Hathloul on a family video call.

Another sister, Alia, said in a separate post that al-Hathloul was at their parents’ home in Saudi Arabia, adding “this is the best day of my life”.

There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities on her release.

Lina later thanked supporters on Twitter but said while Loujain is at home, “she is not free”.

“The fight is not over. I am not fully happy without the release of all political prisoners,” Lina tweeted.

Al-Hathloul, who pushed to end a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, was imprisoned in 2018 and sentenced by a court in December to an almost six-year jail term on terrorism-related charges, in a case that drew international condemnation.

Held for 1001 days, with stints in pre-trial detention and solitary confinement, she was found guilty on charges including agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order.

United Nations human rights experts called the charges “spurious” and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the conviction a “travesty of justice”.

Her early release was widely expected as the judge suspended part of her sentence and gave her credit for time already served.

US President Joe Biden voiced his approval for her release.

“She was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her from prison was the right thing to do,” he said.

Many rejoiced over her release on social media.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter he was pleased to see al-Hathloul’s release.

“Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Loujain al-Hathloul for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling,” Sullivan tweeted.

“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur.”

The US State Department separately also said her release was a welcome development.

Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions tweeted: “We are holding her close and welcoming her home.

“The cruelty of Saudi Arabia rulers that kept her away from her family, her home; that violated her most basic right to physical and mental integrity – should not be forgotten,” Callamard said.

Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director, said al-Hathloul should never have been imprisoned.

“The supposedly ‘reformist’ Saudi crown prince jailed her for demanding her rights. Still, let’s celebrate that she has now, at long last, been released,” he wrote on Twitter.

Although released, al-Hathloul will remain under strict conditions, her family has previously said, including a five-year travel ban and three years of probation.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel wrote in a statement “we have yet to be assured this is true freedom”.

“Loujain may still have draconian limitations on her movement, most poignantly, on her ability to speak out,” Nossel said.

“As she has shown – despite torture, despite abuse, despite being held for over 1,000 days – she is a resilient, bold defender of the rights of all humanity, and surely such stipulations will not silence her.

“But we will not relent until she is granted full freedom to speak, work, travel, and live freely.”

Her release comes weeks into Biden’s administration in the United States, an ally of the kingdom. Earlier this month, the White House said Biden expected Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record, including releasing women’s rights activists and other political prisoners.

Biden labelled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trial and promised to reverse former President Donald Trump’s policy of giving Saudi Arabia “a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies”, including the targeting of female activists.

Last week, Saudi authorities released two activists with US citizenship on bail pending their trials.

Later on Wednesday, Biden called al-Hathloul “a powerful advocate of women’s rights”.

“Releasing her was the right thing to do,” he said during a visit to the Pentagon.

Al-Hathloul’s arrest in 2018 – along with that of at least a dozen other women’s rights activists in a crackdown on dissent led by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) – came just weeks before the historic lifting of a decades-old ban on female drivers, a reform al-Hathloul had long campaigned for.

The case drew intense criticism from rights groups, members of the US Congress and European Union politicians.

The detention of women activists also cast a renewed spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.

Activism and detentions

Al-Hathloul was arrested for the first time in 2014 while attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates – where she had a valid driver’s licence – to Saudi Arabia. She spent 73 days in a women’s detention facility, an experience she later said helped shape her campaign against the kingdom’s male guardianship system.

In 2016, a year after she became one of the first women to stand for municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, she was among 14,000 signatories on a petition to King Salman calling for an end to the guardianship system.

In March 2018, al-Hathloul was again arrested in the UAE where she was studying and forcibly flown to Riyadh where she was held under house arrest before being moved to prison in May, according to rights groups. She was among at least a dozen other women’s rights activists arrested, and Saudi media tarred them as traitors.

In 2016, al-Hathloul was among 14,000 signatories on a petition to King Salman calling for an end to the male guardianship system [File: Facebook account of al-Hathloul/AFP]

Rights groups say at least three of the women, including al-Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi authorities have denied torture allegations.

Rights organisations have also documented the torture and sexual violence al-Hathloul has been subjected to since her arrest.

According to her family members, some of the torture sessions have been in the presence of MBS’s close aide Saud al-Qahtani.

Saudi judges recently dismissed those allegations.

In August 2019, al-Hathloul’s family said she had rejected a proposal to secure her release from prison in exchange for a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody.

Al-Hathloul went on a hunger strike in October – her second in 2020 – to protest against the conditions of her detention. Her family said she was forced to abandon the hunger strike after two weeks because her jailers were waking her every two hours.

According to London-based NGO ALQST, Monday marked 1,000 days since al-Hathloul’s imprisonment.

While some activists and their families have been pressured into silence, al-Hathloul’s siblings, who reside in the US and Europe, launched high-profile campaigns calling for her release.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies