Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison after nearly three years in custody.
Hathloul, a leading campaigner for women’s right to drive and for the end of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other women’s rights activists in a crackdown on dissent. Her detainment came just weeks before the historic lifting of the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia.
In December 2020, she was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, with local media reporting she had been accused of agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, and using the internet to harm public order.
Despite her release from prison, Hathloul is still under probation and is not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia.
Her family’s calls for her release have been championed by human rights groups and foreign governments, with UN experts calling the charges “spurious”.
While in prison, Hathloul alleged that she was subjected to torture and abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. Saudi authorities have denied these accusations.
“Loujain is at home !!!!!!” her sister Lina al-Hathloul tweeted, alongside a photo of Loujain, after the release.
Loujain is at home !!!!!!— Lina Alhathloul لينا الهذلول (@LinaAlhathloul) February 10, 2021
تم الافراج عن لجين pic.twitter.com/fqug9VK6Mj
The decision to release Hathloul comes less than a week after US President Joe Biden’s administration called on Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners. Her release is being seen as a gesture to appease Biden, who has said he will pressure the kingdom to improve its human rights record. Several other prisoners have also been released in recent days.
Upon her release, Biden said Hathloul is “a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do”.
BREAKING: President Biden praises Saudi Arabia’s release of women’s rights activist Loujain Al Hathloul. pic.twitter.com/xAzTyxSmvq— Forbes (@Forbes) February 10, 2021
On social media, Hathloul’s family has asked for people and the media to refrain from saying Hathloul has been “freed”.
“Any release that does not include an independent investigation of the charges, does not include lifting the travel ban, does not include dropping the charges, is not freedom,” said Walid al-Hathloul. “Therefore we’re far away from justice.”
Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said Hathloul should never have been behind bars.
“Loujain al-Hathloul’s release after a harrowing ordeal in prison in Saudi Arabia — lasting nearly three years — is an incredible relief, but long overdue,” Maalouf said.
“Nothing can make up for the cruel treatment she has suffered, nor the injustice of her imprisonment.
“Loujain al-Hathloul should never have been forced to spend a single second behind bars. She has been vindictively punished for bravely defending women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and for exercising her right to freedom of expression.”