Updated: Feb 27
Saudi campaigners and human rights groups finally have the opportunity to welcome the most prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison after three years of detention. She was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other women activists just weeks before they banned female drivers, and it triggered a torrent of international criticism. She is subject to a travel ban, and a suspended sentence if she breaks the terms of her release. She was charged with crimes such as agitating for change, using the internet to cause disorder, and pursuing a foreign agenda She is restricted and barred from stepping out of Saudi Arabia. If she is caught doing it, it would be considered a violation of her parole.
Her parents also had trouble leaving the country, but the reason was never told to them. She launched hunger strikes to protest her imprisonment and joined other female activists to tell Saudi judges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during interrogation. They say that they were caned, electrocuted, and waterboarded and some said that they were forcibly groped and threatened with rape.
She also rejected an offer to revoke her allegations of torture in exchange for an early release. The masked sexual assault case was interrogated, and he was a close confidante and advisor to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the time. There were a dozen other activists who were facing trial and had spent time in prison but al-Hathloul’s case stood out, as she was the only female rights activist who was referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, which tries terrorism cases.
There was evidence of Hathloul tweeting in support of lifting a decades-long ban on women driving and speaking out against the male guardianship law, which led to multiple instances of Saudi women fleeing abusive families for refuge abroad. She was also charged with speaking to European diplomats about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, though that was later dropped by the prosecutor. She also went against the guardianship laws, because of which women were forbidden to travel abroad without the consent of a male relative such as father, husband or brother.
With the help of the easement of guardianship laws last year, women were allowed to apply for a passport and travel freely, and because of her activism, she got many human rights awards and garnered coverage in magazines like Vanity Fair. She was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
Hathloul was always concerned about the fate of women outside the prison rather than herself while imprisoned, she used to be curious enough to ask her brother about it.
Now, if in the next three years, Loujain violates any law, she will be sent back to jail. This can be a reason why her sister will not be going on social media anytime soon, as her tweets would probably be considered illegal. Any activity in this regard would be considered a cybercrime. Her release from jail was hailed internationally. Amnesty International regarded her release as 'long overdue', and leaders around the world, including French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden, echoed the same sentiment. Biden said in one of his speeches that “Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist. She was a powerful activist for women’s rights and releasing her was the right thing to do”. Saudi Arabia was labeled “parish” on the campaign trail and promised to reserve former President Donald Trump’s policy offers “a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies, which includes targeting of female activists. Loujain’s case has massively attracted the public’s attention as it has become a symbol for many other activists that remain in the jails of Saudi.
Her release has highlighted the power of public pressure against the Kingdom. Actions to lift the probational conditions hurled against Loujain and to release the human rights defenders suffering in Saudi jails have also come from US lawmakers. Many people wanted Loujain to be free. They also celebrated her release and demanded that Saudi Arabia should “allow her to leave the country and release the rest of the women’s rights activists who are still in prison” Many women including, Yousef, Nafjan, and Mohareb are prominent figures in advocating women’s rights. Holding their sway over social media, the women have fought for their rights and pushed the Crown Prince to eliminate the male guardianship laws. The detained human rights defenders have not been spotted lately including Loujain Al Hathloul, Eman AlNafjan, and Aziza Al-Yousef, who continue to be detained, which is a matter of deep concern.
Saudi sources close to Loujain Al-Hathoul say that her detention is an act of retaliation for her engagement with the international human rights mechanisms, including UN Human Rights bodies.
Saudi authorities should be urged to release the individuals who were detained for peacefully exercising their rights of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, immediately and unconditionally, and drop all charges against them. The State should guarantee that in all circumstances the physical and psychological safety and integrity of all human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia would be protected. They should immediately put an end to the harassment of human rights defenders outside and inside the jails, and should allow all the members including women to exercise their rights, and that in all the situations, all the human rights defenders should be able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without any fear of reprisal.