Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul was released Wednesday after 1,001 days in custody.
“Loujain is at my family’s home”, her sister Alia said on Twitter. “The most beautiful day of my life”. Lina, another sister, posted photos of a smiling Loujain standing before a blooming tree at the house and speaking over video chat.
Saudi Arabia has released several detained activists in recent days, a move widely interpreted as an effort to appease the Biden administration which has stepped up pressure on the kingdom over its human rights record. The 31-year-old Loujain was detained in May 2018 along with several others who campaigned for lifting the ban on women driving and removing the male guardianship system.
US President Joe Biden welcomed Loujain’s release. “She’s a powerful advocate for women’s rights, and releasing her was the right thing to do,” he said as he stumbled on the spelling of her last name at the beginning of remarks he gave at the Pentagon on Wednesday. French President Emmanuel Macron also welcomed the news and said on Twitter that he shares the relief of her family.
The Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh, which handles terrorism cases, last December sentenced Loujain to 68 months in prison, with half of that term suspended, over charges including seeking to change the country’s political system and “execute a foreign agenda inside the kingdom using the internet”. The court said the decision to suspend 34 months of the jail term was “out of consideration for her conditions”.
One point that Loujain’s family and supporters sought to emphasise is that her release from prison does not mean freedom as she would still be on probation and under a lengthy travel ban. Advocacy groups have urged the government to drop charges against her. “Loujain al-Hathloul’s wrongful imprisonment has ended, but she’s still not free,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With al-Hathloul banned from travel and threatened with more prison time if she does not stay silent, her ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice.”
Loujain’s brother Waleed said “the mission is not over until justice is achieved”, calling for compensating Loujain and bringing those accused of torturing her to justice as well as holding local newspapers to account for damaging her reputation. The government denies torture allegations. An appeals court on Tuesday rejected her claims of torture.
“Nothing can make up for the cruel treatment she has suffered, nor the injustice of her imprisonment. During her time in prison she was tortured and sexually harassed, held in solitary confinement and was denied access to her family for months at a time,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. “Saudi Arabia’s authorities must ensure those responsible for her torture and other ill-treatment are brought to justice. They must also ensure she is not subjected to any further punitive measures such as a travel ban.”
The local media campaign to vilify Loujain and other activists following their arrests in 2018 was vicious and unprecedented. Local regulations say the identities of suspects should be withheld until a final ruling in their cases is passed by the court, but the names and photos of the detained activists were printed on the front pages of newspapers with words like “spies” and “traitors”. Ultranationalist figures on social media have continued to use the same rhetoric even after her release.
“When you see the president of the greatest country in the world celebrating the release of a traitor from jail you should know that we are targeted at the highest level and must stand together heart and soul with our country”, one of them said Wednesday. “Our nation just needs us to be aware and spread awareness as much as possible”.
Officials have not commented on her conviction or sentencing, and local media has largely avoided covering her release. While Saudi women have gained more rights in recent years as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s programme for economic and social reform, the issue of detained activists has raised questions about the kingdom’s commitment to improving human rights amid complaints of repeated crackdowns and a shrinking margin for freedom of expression.
That situation has accelerated the growth of a Saudi dissident movement abroad, with several activists in the US and Europe seeking support from Western officials and lawmakers to bring more attention to the cases of their relatives.
Nouf Abdulaziz, a blogger known for defending political prisoners, was reportedly released last month. Some activists detained in the same crackdown in 2018 such as Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi and Mohammed al-Rabiah remain in jail. Others such as Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were released in March 2019 pending trial. A senior European ambassador told the Guardian that Loujain was close to being released around the same time, but her lawyers were not prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would have prevented her from detailing her ordeal.
A UN spokesman said: “it is important that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped against them.”
I have detailed Loujain’s rise to fame and her history of activism in a previous dispatch of the newsletter which you can read here. With the restrictions placed on her now, it would be interesting to watch if her siblings residing abroad might shift the tactics of their campaign on her behalf.
Loujain “has become a symbol for a wide range of people, ordinary people, particularly in the West, perhaps in the Middle East as well, and that isn’t going to alter,” Simon Henderson, the director for the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute, told NPR.
Her release is seen as the latest olive branch extended by Saudi Arabia to Biden.
The governmental Human Rights Commission said earlier this week that a court had commuted the death sentences of three young Shia men detained as minors during anti-government protests in Qatif, including Ali al-Nemer, nephew of a prominent preacher who was executed in 2016. They will be freed next year after their sentences were reduced to ten years in prison. Authorities have also temporarily released two Saudi-American dual nationals who were detained in April 2019 along with a group of writers and young intellectuals.
Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, declined to say if Secretary Blinken pressed his Saudi counterpart about releasing Loujain in a recent phone call. “In every relationship, whether it is one with our closest allies, our closest partners, and with our closest security partners, we will never check our values, we will never check our principles at the door”, he said in a press briefing Wednesday. “Human rights, democracy, civil rights, civil liberties, these are – these are elements that we bring to the conversation across the board. And it is something we bring certainly to every relationship”.
Correction: Nouf Abdulaziz was released last month, not Wednesday as originally stated. The post has been updated to reflect that.