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Loujain al-Hathloul: Saudi activist released from prison

Blogger Nouf Abdulaziz, who was also swept up in Mohammed bin Salman's 2018 crackdown on dissent, also reportedly released
In a photo shared by her sister on social media, Loujain is shown smiling after her release (Screengrab/Twitter)

Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has returned home after spending 1,001 days in prison.

Nouf Abdulaziz, a blogger, was also released from prison, according to the Women's Human Rights Defenders in MENA group.

The releases were celebrated online, with Loujain's sister Lina al-Hathloul, taking to Twitter to share the news:

Lina also highlighted that despite her sister’s conditional release, she will still face restrictions on her freedom and movement. 

“Can I kindly ask that we don’t use the word ‘free’ or ‘freed’ in noting Loujain’s potential release as it is not freedom. It is a potential release from prison and she is still under probation, travel ban and awaiting news of the appeal process. Thank you for all your support,” she tweeted on Tuesday. 

Her other sister, Alia al-Hathloul, also celebrated the release on Twitter, calling Wednesday the best day of her life. 

Translation: ‘Mamaaaaaa, this is the best day of my life, Loujain is at my parent’s house’. 

Thousands of people congratulated the family online. 

Loujain al-Hathloul is probably the most famous activist, dissident or critic detained by the Saudi government. Her family have campaigned relentlessly for her release, attracting worldwide attention and scorn for the Saudi authorities.

Alia said she is proud of her siblings for helping get Loujain released. 

"Thank you for everyone who has congratulated us. Forgive me if i can't reply to the phonecalls," Alia tweeted. 

Rothna Begum, senior women's researcher at Human Rights Watch, celebrated the news but also called on Saudi authorities to release other women still behind bars

"Finally!!! Great to hear Loujain al-Hathloul is home! She should never have been arrested in the first place. Saudi authorities should quash all charges and lift the suspended sentence and travel bans against her and other women's rights activists for their women's rights activism," she said in a tweet. 

Agnes Callamard, a UN expert that has investigated Saudi abuses, also hailed the news.

The right to drive

Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, is a vocal women’s rights defender. In 2018, she was arrested in the UAE and flown to Saudi Arabia, where she faced a trial based on a terror law often used to prosecute activists. 

The activist was tried in the Specialised Criminal Court, which Saudi Arabia set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases but in recent years has pursued peaceful dissidents. In December, she was sentenced to five years and eight months imprisonment, convicted under acts that fall under a Saudi law on combating and financing terrorism.

UN experts have called the charges "spurious".

Hathloul campaigned for women’s rights and the lifting of the driving ban, and also spoke openly about the kingdom’s laws on male guardianship. 

Loujain al-Hathloul was released, but other Saudi women activists remain behind bars
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Her detention came as part of a sweeping crackdown that has seen vocal figures, dissidents and religious scholars imprisoned. 

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi government has aggressively publicised liberalising reforms. However, several women who campaigned for the right to drive, such as Hathloul, were imprisoned as the kingdom implemented the very same reform.

According to reports from rights groups and family members, Hathloul faced sexual harassment and torture while in prison. 

In an interview with CNN, Loujain’s brother, Walid al-Hathloul, said that Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to the crown prince, oversaw his sister's torture and threatened to rape her. 

Earlier this week, Alia al-Hathloul said her parents were summoned to the Court of Appeal over Loujain’s alleged torture in prison. According to documents shared by Alia, the court refused to acknowledge that she had been tortured, citing lack of evidence. 

However, Hathloul's family noted requests for authorities to release records that may have helped her case were ignored.

Last year, Hathloul also went on hunger strike to protest against the al-Hair prison administration depriving her of contact with her family. Her family later reported that her health had deteriorated significantly after going on hunger strike. 

'Sensitive issues'

Nouf Abdulaziz was detained in the same 2018 crackdown.

Authorities said her columns, which appeared on her personal blog and Saudi feminist website Noon al-Arabyiah, discussed "sensitive issues". 

The founder of Saudi-focused human rights organisation AlQST, Yahya Assiri, told the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2019 that Abdulaziz was forced to stop writing her columns following pressure from officials. 

'Don’t take away all that I have dreamed of and striven for just to be a scapegoat for the benefit of another'

- Nouf Abdulaziz

Abdulaziz and Hathloul both became icons, symbolsing the lack of women's freedoms and rights in the kingdom. Many rights organisations have campaigned for their release since their imprisonment. 

Hana Al-Khamri, a friend of Abdulaziz’s, published a letter from her shortly after she was arrested. 

In the letter, Abdulaziz questioned why she was considered a criminal in her home country. 

“I was never but a good citizen who loved her country and wished the best for it, a loving daughter and a hardworking student and a devoted worker, who never demeaned, hated or envied anyone,” she wrote.

“Take my life, time, health, all that I own if that is for the benefit of my country, take my present, future, and all that I love if that satisfies you and if it’s for the good of our people, but don’t take away my right to life and to freedom and dignity. Don’t take away all that I have dreamed of and striven for just to be a scapegoat for the benefit of another.”