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Jailed Saudi female activists may be freed before G20, says ambassador

Sister of detained activist Loujain al-Hathloul dismisses 'PR stunt' aimed at saving kingdom's reputation
This undated handout picture released on the Facebook page of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul shows her in happier times on a beach (AFP)

Female activists in Saudi Arabia could be released from prison ahead of its hosting of the G20 summit this month, according to the Saudi ambassador to the UK.

Fearing potential scrutiny over the kingdom's human rights record ahead of the summit - set to be held on 21 and 22 November virtually - Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud told the Guardian there was a "discussion" underway over the issue.

However, his comments were dismissed by Lina al-Hathloul - sister of women's rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul - as a "PR stunt".

'This is simply a PR stunt, again. Loujain and most of the jailed Saudi activists HAVE NOT BEEN CONVICTED! ⁦It’s been nearly three years and they are still arbitrarily and illegally detained'

- Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain's sister

“The G20, does it offer an opportunity for clemency? Possibly. That is a judgment for someone other than me,” continued the ambassador.

“People ask: is it worth the damage it is causing you, whatever they did? That is a fair argument to make and it is a discussion we have back at home within our political system and within our ministry."

A number of female activists, including Hathloul, who has been on hunger strike at Al-Hayer high security prison since 26 October, were arrested and detained in 2018 on charges including "attempting to destabilise the kingdom".

Hathloul's family say she has been subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse while in prison.

The Saudi ambassador said there were a variety of views in the kingdom, with some holding the perspective that if "people knowingly break our laws they should be punished according to those laws".

"Other people say it isn’t worth it, let them out, let them live their lives and ignore them," he said.

According to her family, Hathloul began her hunger strike in protest at her conditions in prison. While some of the around a dozen female activists who were arrested in May 2018 - just weeks before the much campaigned for lifting of a ban on women drivers - have been provisionally released, others still remain in jail.

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In response to the suggestion of "clemency" from the ambassador, Hathloul's sister Lina pointed out that she and many other activists had not been convicted of a crime.

"This is simply a PR stunt, again. Loujain and most of the jailed Saudi activists HAVE NOT BEEN CONVICTED! ⁦It’s been nearly three years and they are still arbitrarily and illegally detained," she tweeted.

"Also what does 'let them live their lives and ignore them [mean]?'" 

She said that the kingdom was clearly feeling the pressure from international human rights organisations and politicians, who have repeatedly raised the issue ahead of the summit.

"Meanwhile, my sister among others has been tortured in detention and sexually abused," she said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged G20 member states to pressure Saudi Arabia into releasing activists detained unlawfully and provide accountability for past abuses ahead of the summit.

The New York-based rights organisation said in a statement on Monday that the G20 presidency conferred an "undeserved mark of international prestige" on the rule of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite its "unrelenting assault on freedoms".

"The G20 is bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as ‘reforming’ despite a significant increase in repression since 2017," Michael Page, HRW deputy Middle East director, said in a statement.