Prominent Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul freed from jail after nearly 3 years
Prominent women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from a Saudi prison on Wednesday after nearly three years behind bars, her sister said in a Twitter post, in a case that had drawn international condemnation.
"Loujain is at home !!!!!!" her sister Lina tweeted, posting a close-up picture of Hathloul's face.
Hathloul, 31, who fought to end a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, was detained in May 2018 and sentenced in December to nearly six years in prison on charges that UN human rights experts have called "spurious" under broad counter-terrorism laws.
The court, which also ordered a five-year travel ban, had suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, in what her family says paved the way for her early release.
The verdict was a "face-saving exit strategy" for the Saudi government after it came under severe international pressure for her release, the source close to Hathloul's family told journalists at the time.
Rights groups and her family say Hathloul was subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault while detained.
Saudi authorities denied the accusations. A Saudi appeals court dismissed the torture claims, citing a lack of evidence, her family said on Tuesday.
Amnesty International on Wednesday urged Riyadh to bring to justice "those responsible for her torture" and ensure Hathloul faces no further punitive measures like a travel ban. Saudi officials have not commented on her conviction or sentencing. There was no immediate comment on her release.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who strongly called for Hathloul's release last year, welcomed the news, tweeting that he "shared the relief of her family".
U.S. President Joe Biden described Hathloul as “a powerful advocate for women’s rights” and voiced his approval of Saudi Arabia’s decision to free her from prison, saying it “was the right thing to do”.
Her release comes after Biden pledged to intensify scrutiny of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's human rights record. He is expected to push the kingdom to release dual U.S.-Saudi citizens, activists and royal family members, many of whom are detained without any formal charges.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed her release, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
"But I think 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," he told reporters.
UN investigator decries 'cruelty' of Saudi leaders
Hathloul, who was detained along with several other women's rights activists, had her case transferred last November to the Specialised Criminal Court, or the anti-terrorism court, which campaigners say is used to silence critical voices under the cover of fighting terrorism. She was convicted on charges including seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national unity.
Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan subsequently told journalists that Hathloul was accused of contacting "unfriendly" states and providing classified information, but her family said no evidence to support the allegations had been put forward.
Saudi Arabia's rights record came under global scrutiny after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, which tarnished Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's image. The prince denied ordering the killing.
Agnes Callamard, the independent UN rights investigator who led an international probe into Khashoggi's murder, welcomed Hathloul's release but said in a Twitter post that "the cruelty" of Saudi rulers that "violated her most basic right to physical and mental integrity" should not be forgotten.
Saudi authorities released two activists with US citizenship on bail this month pending trials on terrorism-related charges. Last month, a Saudi appeals court nearly halved a six-year jail sentence for a US-Saudi physician and suspended the rest, meaning he did not have to return to jail.
Diplomats have said the kingdom has appeared to be acting to address potential friction with the Biden administration. (France 24/Reuters/AP/AFP)