Happy news, rare in the realm of human rights in Saudi Arabia, occurred on Wednesday when it was learned that Loujain al-Hathloul, held in a Saudi prison for more than three years on what human rights observers agree were ridiculous, trumped-up, politically-motivated charges was released by the Saudi government under certain autocratic conditions.
As reported by CNN, al-Hathloul “will remain on probation for three years following her release, during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity, the family said in a statement in December. She will also be banned from traveling for five years….” In other words, she is free from prison and the threat of abuse as long as she abides by the government’s rules–in short, no activity that the Saudi government decides is illegal, like, say, activism.
Here’s a brief summary of what al-Hathloul had to endure:
During the 31-year old activist’s time in prison, Saudi officials tortured and sexually abused her, then offered to release her if she participated in a video denying the mistreatment. She refused. On December 28, a special Saudi terrorism court convicted her of “crimes” that included calling for an end to the Saudi male guardianship system that controls women and “inciting change” in the kingdom. The court sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison, two years and ten months of which was suspended. She had been in detention since May 15, 2018. Alhathloul is appealing the conviction.
The family of Loujain has publicly thanked President Biden for his help in her release. Al-Hathloul’s sister, Alia, expressed her gratitude to Biden and the United States. Biden reportedly said that Loujain’s release was “welcome news” and “she was a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do.”
But as her family makes clear, the release of Loujain al-Hathloul is not enough, as she remains under threat of arrest and is forbidden to travel. Meanwhile, many other women activists are still imprisoned and perhaps are being tortured in Saudi prisons. In October of 2020, Saudi Arabia ironically and deceitfully hosted an international women’s rights conference while al-Hathloul and other women activists remained jailed.
President Biden and the State Department must continue to pressure the Saudi regime (as they did by announcing an end to U.S. support for the war in Yemen) to make serious democratic and human rights reforms.
Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch had this to say after the release of al-Hathloul:
“Saudi Arabia should quash the convictions against Loujain al-Hathloul that essentially deem her women’s rights activism ‘terrorism,’ lift the travel ban, and end her suspended sentence. The Saudi authorities should also immediately and unconditionally release all human rights activists detained for advocating for human rights.”