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Thursday, 22 April 2021

Prominent Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul released from prison

'Loujain is at home!!!!!!' her sister Lina al-Hathloul declared on Twitter alongside a screenshot showing a flushed Loujain beaming on a family video call

AP , Thursday 11 Feb 2021
Loujain al-Hathloul
FILE PHOTO: Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is seen in this undated handout picture. (Photo: Reuters)
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One of Saudi Arabia's most prominent political activists was released from prison Wednesday, her family said, after serving nearly three years on charges of "causing disorder" and "agitating for a foreign agenda."

Loujain al-Hathloul, who pushed to end a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to almost six years in prison last December under a broad counterterrorism law.

Held for 1001 days, with time in pre-trial detention and solitary confinement, she was accused of crimes such as agitating for change, using the internet to cause disorder and pursuing a foreign agenda.

``Loujain is at home!!!!!!`` her sister Lina al-Hathloul declared on Twitter alongside a screenshot showing a flushed Loujain beaming on a family video call.

There was no immediate comment from Saudi authorities on her release.

Her release this year was widely expected as the 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.

The release Wednesday, earlier than anticipated, comes as Saudi Arabia faces new scrutiny from the United States, where President Joe Biden has vowed to reassess the US-Saudi partnership and stand up for human rights and democratic principles.

``I have some welcome news that the Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist,`` Biden said in a speech at the Pentagon. ``She was a powerful activist for women's rights and releasing her was the right thing to do.''

Biden had labeled Saudi Arabia a ``pariah'' on the campaign trial and promised to reverse former President Donald Trump's policy of giving the country ``a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies,'' including the targeting of female activists.

The kingdom lifted the ban on women driving  in mid-2018.

The United Nations welcomed al-Hathloul's release but U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said ``it is important that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped against them.``

Although 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,'' her sister Lina wrote on Twitter. ``I am not fully happy without the release of all political prisoners.''

Many human rights activists applauded al-Hathloul's release from prison but urged caution amid the remaining restrictions on her freedom.

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.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia issued laws allowing any citizen to apply for a passport and travel freely, ending a long-standing guardianship policy that gave men control over women.

Al-Hathloul 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 follows that of two dual Saudi-US citizens who had been detained since 2019: Badr al-Ibrahim, a writer and physician, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of a prominent women's rights activist.

Following intense pressure from Congress, they were both set free, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced last Friday, calling it a ``positive, but long overdue step.''

Al-Haidar, who has a family home in Vienna, Virginia, had faced up to 33 years in prison for alleged Twitter posts criticizing the Saudi government. The Freedom Initiative, a prisoners' rights group, stressed that the release of the men was temporary, pending trial.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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