Saudi frees jailed activist Loujain al-Hathloul: family

Riyadh (AFP) –


Saudi authorities on Wednesday released prominent women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul after nearly three years in detention, her family said, as the kingdom faces renewed US pressure over its human rights record.

"Loujain is at home!!!!!!!" her sister Lina al-Hathloul wrote on Twitter.

Loujain "at home after 1001 days in prison," she added, along with a picture of the freed activist.

Hathloul, 31, was arrested in May 2018 with about a dozen other women activists just weeks before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers, a reform they had long campaigned for, sparking a torrent of international criticism.

In late December, a Saudi court handed Hathloul a prison term of five years and eight months for terrorism-related crimes, including inciting regime change, but her family said a partially suspended sentence paved the way for her early release.

However, the court has banned Hathloul from leaving the kingdom for five years, her relatives said.

The activist's family denounced her trial as a "sham" and "politically motivated".

This verdict, however, was a "face-saving exit strategy" for the Saudi government after it came under severe international pressure to free her, a source close to Hathloul's family told AFP at the time.

- US scrutiny on rights -

Her release comes after US President Joe Biden pledged to intensify scrutiny of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's human rights record.

After the kingdom largely got a free pass under previous president Donald Trump, Biden is expected to push it to free dual US-Saudi citizens, activists and royal family members, many of whom are detained without any formal charges.

After being tried in Riyadh's criminal court, Hathloul's case was transferred last November to the anti-terrorism court, which campaigners say is used to silence critical voices under the cover of fighting terrorism.

Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan subsequently told AFP 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.

While some detained women activists have been provisionally released, Hathloul and others remained imprisoned on what rights groups described as opaque charges.

The pro-government Saudi media has branded them as "traitors" and Hathloul's family alleges she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention. The Saudi court recently dismissed those allegations.

The detention of women activists has cast a renewed spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.