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'We want real justice': Loujain al-Hathloul's family slams conditions of release

Since Loujain's sentence was only suspended, not pardoned, Saudi Arabia retains right to return her to prison for any perceived criminal activity
A woman viewing a tweet posted by sister of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, Lina, in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on 10 February (AFP/File photo)

After nearly three years in prison, Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, is now home, but her family says she is not truly free. 

Speaking during an online news conference on Thursday, the day after her sister's release, Lina al-Hathloul detailed the conditions of her sister's probation, including a travel ban.

"What we want now is real justice," she told reporters. "That Loujain is completely, unconditionally free."

Remaining under close scrutiny by the Saudi government, Loujain and both her parents have been barred from leaving the country.

'Loujain al-Hathloul's wrongful imprisonment has ended, but she's still not free'

- Adam Coogle, HRW

There has also been speculation that the women's rights activist has been threatened with further jail time were she to speak openly about the conditions of her probation. 

Still, Loujain's sister relayed comments made by her regarding the 1,001 days she spent in prison. 

"We asked her: 'When you were in prison, you said you were fine.'" Lina told reporters. "She said: 'What did you want me to do? An electric gun was on my ear. They were ready to electrocute me.'"

'A flagrant miscarriage of justice'

Since her sentence was suspended, rather than pardoned, the government retains the right to return Loujain to prison at any time for any perceived criminal activity. 

Rights groups and activists around the world have joined the Hathloul family in calling for such conditions to be repealed. 

Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), echoed the Hathloul family's demand for Loujain's full pardon. 

"Loujain al-Hathloul's wrongful imprisonment has ended, but she’s still not free," Coogle said in a statement. "With al-Hathloul banned from travel and threatened with more prison time if she does not stay silent, her ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice."

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The group also highlighted the torture and other ill-treatment endured by Loujain during her imprisonment, including extended solitary confinement and long periods of incommunicado detention, as well as the mass detention and treatment of other rights activists. 

"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," Coogle said. 

"The Saudi authorities should also immediately and unconditionally release all human rights activists detained for advocating for human rights," he continued. 

Amnesty International, which had campaigned extensively within the movement, calling for Loujain's release, insisted those responsible for the activist's treatment be held to account. 

"Saudi Arabia’s authorities must ensure those responsible for her torture and other ill-treatment are brought to justice. They must also ensure she is not subjected to any further punitive measures such as a travel ban," the group said in a statement on Wednesday. 

"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, and for exercising her right to freedom of expression."

US calls to 'drop all charges'

Sentenced to five years and eight months imprisonment in December, Loujain's release is widely regarded as an attempt by Saudi authorities to win the favour of recently sworn-in US President Joe Biden. 

Biden, taking a more critical stance on Saudi Arabia compared to his predecessor who gave near-blanket support for the kingdom, has vowed to pressure Saudi Arabia on its human rights violations. 

During Thursday's news conference, another of Loujain's sisters, Alia, thanked Biden for pressuring the kingdom to issue the release.

"I would say thank you, Mr President, that you helped my sister to be released," Alia said. 

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"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," her sister continued. "She is very determined to use all means that exist within the legal framework in Saudi Arabia to exhaust all the possibilities in order to obtain her rights." 

Before she was imprisoned, Loujain campaigned for women’s rights, speaking out against the country's then-driving ban on women and Saudi Arabia's laws on male guardianship. 

Arrested in the UAE in 2018 and flown to Saudi Arabia, Loujain was charged for her criticisms of the kingdom under a terror law often used to prosecute activists. During the trial, UN experts called the charges "spurious".

Loujain's case has become a symbol of the many other activists that remain imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and her release has highlighted the power of public pressure against the kingdom.

Calls on Saudi Arabia to lift the probational conditions levied against Loujain and release human rights defenders languishing in Saudi jails have also come from US lawmakers in recent days. 

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar celebrated Loujain's release from prison, but demanded that Saudi Arabia "allow her to leave the country and release the rest of the women's rights activists still in prison". 

Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, also called for conditions placed against the activist's release to be lifted. 

"Loujain's torture and three-year imprisonment was an outrage, and she should be freed from restrictions on her speech and travel by Saudi authorities," Schiff said on Thursday. 

The calls have extended from Republicans as well, as Senator Marco Rubio's press team said the lawmaker has demanded that Saudi authorities "immediately drop all charges against her".

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair, Jim Risch, also a Republican, said allowing Loujain to return home was "a good first step, however, all of her charges should be dropped and she should be allowed to travel freely".