Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul released from prison

Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from a Saudi prison on Wednesday after nearly three years behind bars, her sister said in a Twitter post.

“Loujain is at home !!!!!!” her sister Lina tweeted, posting a close-up picture of Hathloul’s face.

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

Al-Hathloul 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 has drawn international condemnation including from UN human rights experts who have called the charges “spurious”.

Local media reported she had been found guilty on charges including agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order.

The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, and she was set to be released in March.

Her release comes weeks into President Joe 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.

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

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.

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.

On December 28, 2020, she was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, with two years and 10 months suspended. Charges against her include seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national security.

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

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