A Saudi women’s rights activist who pushed to end the country’s ban on female drivers has been freed after spending just over 1,000 days in prison, where she reportedly “had been forced to kiss and perform other sexual acts on [her] interrogators.”
Loujain al-Hathloul emerged from custody Wednesday following her arrest in 2018. She was sentenced to almost six years in prison last December under a broad counterterrorism law.
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Al-Hathloul — who spent 1,001 days in prison, with time in pretrial detention and solitary confinement — was accused of crimes such as agitating for change, using the internet to cause disorder and pursuing a foreign agenda. Rights groups have described those charges as politically motivated.
The 31-year-old Saudi activist rocketed to prominence in Saudi Arabia for her criticism of the kingdom’s guardianship system, which bars women from travel without a male relative, and her outspokenness on human rights issues. She was first detained in 2014 for 70 days when, in an act of defiance, she posted a video online of herself attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates into the kingdom.
Her release this year was widely expected as a Saudi judge suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence and gave her credit for time already served, putting her release date sometime in March.
But while she was in prison, “several sources reported that Loujain Al-Hathloul… had been forced to kiss and perform other sexual acts on interrogators,” Helena Kennedy, a British lawyer and human rights advocate, wrote in a report issued in November last year as Saudi Arabia was holding a virtual G20 summit.
From behind bars al-Hathloul launched hunger strikes to protest her prison conditions and joined other female activists in testifying to judges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during the interrogations. The women reported that they were caned, electrocuted and waterboarded. Some said they were groped and threatened with rape, but Saudi Arabia denies that any were mistreated.
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Al-Hathloul’s family said that an appeals court on Tuesday rejected her claims of torture, citing a lack of evidence. While some activists and their families have been pressured into silence, al-Hathloul’s siblings, who reside in the U.S. and Europe, had launched a high-profile campaign calling for her release.
In a press conference Thursday, Lina al-Hathloul — another one of her sisters – said Loujain al-Hathloul told her parents in phone calls from prison that she was fine, but in reality she had an electrocution device attached to her ear, according to CTV News.
Although she was released, al-Hathloul will remain free under strict conditions, her family has said, including a five-year travel ban and three years of probation.
“Loujain is at home, but she is not free. The fight is not over,” Lina al-Houthal wrote on Twitter. “I am not fully happy without the release of all political prisoners.”
Her family will now pursue justice for Loujain al-Houthal’s torturers, the BBC added.
Al-Hathloul’s family is now crediting the Biden administration for helping secure her early release.
“She was released after few weeks after [President] Biden’s arrival to power. Without international pressure we cannot obtain something in Saudi Arabia,” her sister Alia al-Hathloul told reporters Thursday. “Thank you Mr. President, that helped release my sister.”
President Biden, in a speech at the Pentagon on Wednesday, described al-Hathloul’s release as “welcome news”.
“She was a powerful activist for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do,” he said.
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Biden had labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trial and promised to reverse former President Trump’s policy of giving the country “a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also said Wednesday that he welcomes al-Hathloul’s release and “shares the relief” of her family.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities on her release.
The harsh crackdown against women who had pressed for the right to drive before Saudi Arabia lifted the ban in mid-2018 came to symbolize the dual strategy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The young, ambitious prince has sought to portray himself as a liberalizing reformer while also silencing and detaining activists who long had pushed for change.
The suppression of perceived critics and potential rivals has intensified under Crown Prince Mohammed, increasingly attracting international ire since the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul at the hands of Saudi agents in late 2018.
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Many human rights activists have applauded al-Hathloul’s release from prison but urged caution amid the remaining restrictions on her freedom.
“If she is not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia, or is forced to remain on probation, there is no reason to believe she will not be arrested again or forced to remain subject to her country’s draconian laws that prevent her from speaking out and demanding her basic rights,” Abdullah Alaoudh, Gulf research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization founded by Khashoggi, told The Associated Press.
Fox News’ NaNa Sajaia and The Associated Press contributed to this report.