Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released on Wednesday, February 10, a day before her scheduled expected release on Thursday after spending more than 1001 days in jail. Her release was confirmed by her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, on Twitter. However, according to her family members strict restrictions have been imposed on Loujain, including three years of probation and a five year travel ban forbidding her from travelling outside Saudi Arabia.
According to the Middle East Eye, along with Loujain, Saudi blogger Nouf Abdulaziz who was arrested in 2018, was also released.
A day earlier, Loujain’s sister Lina had insisted on Twitter that the words ‘free’ or ‘freed’ not be used to describe Loujain’s conditional release taking into account the probation and travel ban, while also noting that the appeal process for the original conviction and sentence against her is still pending.
Her other sister, Alia al-Hathloul also said that earlier this week, her parents had been summoned by the Court of Appeal over the matter of Loujain’s alleged mental, physical and sexual torture in prison. Loujain’s parents presented documents to the court about the matter but the court refused to acknowledge that Loujain had been tortured, and stated the lack of evidence as the reason.
Loujain was arrested on May 15, 2018 in the United Arab Emirates where she was living at the time and has been in jail since then. She completed 1000 days in prison this Monday.
Her arrest and subsequent detention for advocating for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, most notably the right to drive for Saudi women, invited widespread international criticism and uproar, with many international politicians, world leaders, human rights organizations and others calling on Saudi Arabia to release Loujain unconditionally.
In spite of the repeated and impassioned appeals calling for Loujain’s immediate release, the Saudi government not only kept her under illegal detention, but also reportedly made her undergo humiliating and brutal mental and physical torture, which included giving her electric shocks, physically assaulting her, threatening her with sexual abuse and rape. She was also not allowed to contact her family or lawyers for long periods of time, which led to Loujain embarking on multiple hunger strikes demanding that the Saudi authorities let her talk to her family members and lawyers.
Last year in December, a Saudi terrorism court had convicted Loujain on terrorism-related charges such as ‘agitating for change,’ ‘pursuing a foreign agenda’ and ‘using the internet to harm public order.’ She was sentenced to prison for a jail term of 5 years and 8 months, out of which the court suspended 2 years and 10 months on the condition that “she does not commit any crime” within the next three years, and also included the time spent by her in jail so far in the term.
In response to the release of the two Saudi activists, the human rights group, Amnesty International, in a statement said that it was “long overdue”, after three years of a “harrowing ordeal” in a Saudi prison. Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Lynn Maalouf reacting to the news, said, “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. 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.”
A day earlier, other human rights organizations and activists had also issued statements welcoming Loujain’s expected release. National co-director of the US-based pro-peace and anti-war organization CODEPINK Ariel Gold said, “We stand with Loujain and are inspired by her bravery and audacity. Loujain teaches us all to campaign from the heart and never give up the goals of freedom, justice, and equality.”
Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn) executive director, Sarah Leah Winston had responded to the news by highlighting the fact that although Loujain might be released soon, there are tens of hundreds of Saudi citizens who are still being held in illegal detention in the country for advocating for women’s rights, free speech, democracy, among other causes. In her view, Loujain’s release, which might take place within weeks of the new US administration of president Joe Biden taking office, had not taken place under the previous Trump administration, because US government officials did not see it as a priority during their dealings with Saudi Arabia and did not exert enough pressure on the Saudi regime to secure her release. Alaa Al-Siddiq, executive director of ALQST for Human Rights, noted that “the possible release of Loujain this week, after spending over 1000 days unjustly behind bars, would be welcome news, and points to the growing international pressure on Saudi Arabia, without which she may have faced even longer in prison.”