Campaigner was held in custody for 1,001 days on charges denounced as politically motivated
The Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Photograph: Reuters
The Guardian – Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
The prominent Saudi dissident and women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison after 1,001 days in custody.
Following a concerted campaign by her relatives and global rights groups, Hathloul was granted probation by a judge in Riyadh and released to her family on Wednesday afternoon. Her sister Lina published a photo of a smiling Loujain on Twitter early evening Riyadh time – the first image of the most celebrated political prisoner in the Kingdom since she was detained almost three years ago. “Loujain is at home !!!!!!”, the accompanying message said.
Another sister, Alia, said in a separate post that Hathloul was at their parents’ home in Saudi Arabia, adding “this is the best day of my life”.
It is understood that the terms of Hathloul’s probation prevent her from discussing her ordeal in prison. She is banned from leaving Saudi Arabia, and has a suspended sentence looming if she breaks the terms of her release.
Hathloul, 31, had been a leading campaigner for the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia before a change in the law in late 2017. Calls for her release by her family had been repeatedly championed by human rights groups and foreign governments. However, as late as December last year she was sentenced to five years and eight months behind bars and accused of pushing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order.
The sentence dashed hopes of an imminent release and intensified criticism of the heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been the driving force behind widespread social changes in the Kingdom as well as a ruthless crackdown on dissent.
Hathloul launched hunger strikes to protest against her imprisonment and joined other female activists in telling Saudi judges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during interrogations. The women say they were caned, electrocuted and waterboarded. Some say they were forcibly groped and threatened with rape. Hathloul’s parents said they noticed bruising when they visited her in prison.
An appeals court on Tuesday had rejected her claims of torture, her family said.
Hathloul became a cause célèbre for leading Democrats in the US during her imprisonment and her case had been championed by Joe Biden during his presidential election campaign. The release of the activist is thought to at least in part be connected to Biden’s election win.
Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who fully embraced Prince Mohammed and showed no interest in the Kingdom’s human rights controversies, Biden has been noticeably cooler towards Riyadh and has vowed to reassess the US-Saudi partnership and stand up for human rights and democratic principles.
Saudi Arabia’s rights record came under intense global scrutiny after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents. A damning UN report found that there was “credible evidence” that Prince Mohammed and other senior officials were liable for the killing of the Washington Post columnist – a charge the crown prince denies.
“Loujain’s years-long imprisonment has ended, but she is not free,” said Adam Coogle, the deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. “Banned from travel and coerced into silence by a suspended sentence hanging over her, Loujain’s ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice.”
Lucy Rae, a spokeswoman for Grant Liberty, which campaigns for the rights of prisoners in Saudi Arabia, said: “Loujain al-Hathloul leaves prison a hero – brutalised by the regime, but not broken. Her courage is an inspiration to us all. But she is not alone – the international community must not make the mistake of assuming that her release signals the end of the oppression of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.
“The international community must not relent. It’s not just Loujain – there are many other women in prison today because they fought for human rights in Saudi Arabia. They must be freed, unconditionally. Nothing else will do.”
Several other female activists remain locked up in Saudi Arabia after falling foul of a political crackdown that surrounded the granting of the right to drive. Senior Saudi officials at the time feared that public campaigns by prominent women had created the impression that the law change had been the result of activist pressure, rather than an initiative by the Kingdom’s rulers.
“It started out as being a slap on the wrist, but it dragged out like this because both sides became indignant,” said one senior royal familiar with government thinking. “It became damaging and they have been looking for a way out for some time.”
A senior European ambassador told the Guardian that Hathloul’s release had been close more than a year ago, but her lawyers had not been prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would have prevented her from detailing her ordeal.
Late last year, Lina al-Hathloul told the Guardian of her jailed sister: “It’s crazy how strong and resilient she is. After two-and-a-half years she doesn’t give up anything, she wants real justice. She still has strength to tell my parents everything, even though she knows could face backlash [from authorities] over that.
“It’s always very stressful for us when she doesn’t call, because our only experience [of communications being cut] is when she is being tortured or on hunger strike.”