independent– Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from a Saudi prison after nearly three years behind bars, in a case which has sparked international uproar and been dismissed as “a travesty of justice” by human rights groups.
Ms Hathloul, 31, was detained in 2018 and last December was sentenced by the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh under counter terrorism laws to nearly six years in prison, charges that UN human rights experts called “spurious” .
The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, most of which had already been served.
Though now outside jail Ms Hathloul, who alleges she has been tortured by behind bars, will be subject to a five-year travel ban and will be put on probation.
Her sister Lina tweeted a photo of her sister smiling after she had been released, writing that she was finally home after 1,001 days in prison.
She added: “Thank you to each and every one of you who have been supporting us these 1001 days. Loujain is at home, but she is not free. The fight is not over. I am not fully happy without the release of all political prisoners.”
Another sister, Alia, said in a separate post that Ms Hathloul was at their parents’ home in Saudi Arabia, adding “this is the best day of my life.”
When news first broke earlier this week that Ms Hathloul might be released, her sister Lina tweeted that “it is not freedom”.
“It is a potential release from prison and she is still under probation, travel ban and awaiting news of the appeal process,” she added at the time.
Saudi Arabia is under pressure to improve its terrible human rights record including releasing women’s rights activists and other political prisoners after the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The White House said earlier this month that Washington will take a firmer line with Riyadh.
Ms Hathloul was detained during a sweep of arrests of women’s rights activists three years ago and convicted on charges including seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national unity.
Human Rights Watch called her conviction a “travesty of justice”.
Ms Hathloul campaigned for women’s right to drive and to end the kingdom’s oppressive male guardianship system.
Her family said she was subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault.
The Saudi authorities have repeatedly denied the accusations and an appeals court dismissed her claim that she was tortured in jail, citing a lack of evidence, her family said on Tuesday.
Calling Ms Hathloul a “hero” and and “inspiration to us all” Lucy Rae, a spokesperson for human rights group Grant Liberty, warned that the international community should not assume her release “signals the end of the oppression of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia”.
Several women activists who were arrested around the same time as Ms Hathloul remain behind bars including Samar Badawi, Nour Abdulaziz and Nassima al-Sadah.
They said rights defender Fatima al-Nassif, who was arrested in 2017, in prison because she bandaged the wounded at a protest, while Israa al-Ghomgham faced the death penalty for peaceful protest.
The group said Khadija al-Harbi, a Saudi author, was arrested when pregnant and forced to give birth in prison after campaigning for equality
The group added that others are in jail because the authorities objected to posts on social media.
“Until all of these women are free, 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,” Rae said.
Although a key western ally, Saudi Arabia has faced mounting global scrutiny for its rights record after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Saudi’s young and powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was accused of ordering the gruesome killing, an accusation he has repeatedly and vehemently denied.
Earlier this week the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended human rights in his first phone call with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan.
Ms Hathloul rose to prominence in 2013 when she began publicly campaigning for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia.
She was arrested for the first time a year later while attempting to drive across the border from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.
In 2016, she became one of the first women to stand for municipal election in Saudi Arabia, she was among 14,000 signatories on a petition to King Salman calling for an end to the guardianship system.
She was arrested in the UAE in March 2018, rights groups say, and forcibly flown to Riyadh, where she was held under house arrest before being moved to prison in May
Ms Hathloul was among at least a dozen other women’s rights activists detained in a sweep of arrests. She went on hunger strike in October – her second in 2020 – to protest against the conditions of her detention.
Her family said she was forced to abandon the hunger strike after two weeks because her jailers were waking her every two hours. Saudi Arabia has denied accusations of torture.
Amnesty welcomed Ms Hathloul’s release from prison after “a harrowing ordeal”, adding Saudi Arabia “must ensure those responsible for her torture and other ill-treatment are brought to justice”.
“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,” said the human rights group.