After spending almost three years behind bars, prominent women's rights activist from Saudi Loujain al-Hathloul was released, her family confirmed earlier this week. Hathloul received international recognition and charges against her were widely criticised by human rights organisations, members of the US Congress and European Union lawmakers.
Hathloul had been detained back in May 2018 and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison last year in December by a Saudi Specialised Criminal Court. She was charged under the state’s broad counter-terrorism laws for undermining national security and trying to change the political system of the country.
Hathloul was found guilty of charges including agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order. She was among a handful of Saudi women who had openly called for the right to drive before it was granted in 2018 and for the removal of male guardianship laws that had long stifled women's freedom of movement and ability to travel abroad.
Hathloul has been at the forefront of the movement that demands for women's right to drive and also opposing the 'Wilayah' Saudi male guardianship system. In December of 2014, she was held and detained for 73 days for attempting to cross the border in her car from the UAE to Saudi Arabia, despite her having an UAE license. The first vote in Saudi's local elections to include women in 2015 saw Hathloul applying to contest, but Amnesty International said Hathloul's name was barred.
In May of 2018, Hathloul was detained on grounds of national security along with several other activists. For at least 10 months after being detained, Hathloul was not charged with anything and there was no trial but Amnesty International said she and the other women activists were tortured. They were waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and were even threatened with rape and murder during this time.
The trial against her started in March 2019 but charges against her were not specified and media persons and diplomats were not allowed to attend the same. In April 2019 a hearing in her case was deferred without giving any reason and more than a year later in May 2020, again her trial was postponed due to the pandemic.
In October last year, Hathloul started a hunger strike in the prison demanding regular communication with her family members. Under pressure from rights activists and other international dignitaries, Saudi Arabia said it might release Hathloul and others soon.
In December 2020, Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison but on February 10 this year, al-Hathloul's sister announced on Twitter that she had been released from prison.
Her two years and 10 months of sentence was suspended by the court, most of which she had already served.
Hathloul's family has said US President Joe Biden's election win helped secure her release after nearly three years' imprisonment, but cautioned she was still far from free. "I would say thank you Mr President that you helped my sister to be released," Alia al-Hathloul told a virtual press conference. "It's a fact that Loujain was imprisoned during the previous administration, and she was released a few days after Biden's arrival to power.
Saudi Arabi in recent days abruptly accelerated some political trials including that of Hathloul after Joe Biden's election win late last year. Biden had pledged to intensify scrutiny of powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's human rights record.
Hathloul's release came after her siblings launched a massive campaign overseas that caused the Saudi kingdom much embarrassment in the global diplomatic community.
However, Hathloul is on probation for three years and stares at a five-year travel ban.
The siblings posted pictures on Twitter of the smiling activist, who appeared physically weaker and had streaks of grey hair. When asked what was the first thing her sister did upon her release, her sister Alia said she "bought an ice-cream", a joy denied to her in detention.
(With inputs from agencies)