Saudi Arabia Could Release Women’s Rights Activist This Week

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The family of prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul expects her to be released from prison as soon as Thursday after nearly three years in jail, her sister said, as the Biden administration steps up pressure on the kingdom over its human rights record.

“Today, as I prepare my work for the week and look at my schedule, out of excitement, I’ve decided to cancel all my meetings for Thursday February 11 and take a day off,” Alia Al-Hathloul wrote on Twitter. It’s unclear if the government has calculated the same release date as her family given the complexity of the partially suspended sentence she was given. The activist will remain under probation and a travel ban after her release while her case is appealed.

Loujain Al-Hathloul’s arrest in 2018 made global headlines, as did allegations she had been tortured in custody, which Saudi officials denied. She was convicted in December and sentenced to five years and eight months in jail on charges including inciting regime change and seeking to serve foreign agendas. Part of the sentence was suspended, however, meaning she was expected to be released in February.

The partial suspension was viewed as a nod to new U.S. President Joe Biden, who’d said he’d treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over human rights concerns after it enjoyed a particularly friendly relationship with his predecessor. On Friday, the Biden administration urged the kingdom to improve its human rights record and free political prisoners including women’s rights activists.

The president’s predecessor, Donald Trump, continued to support Saudi Arabia even after its agents murdered dissident columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the country’s Istanbul consulate 2018. Biden has threatened to stop the sales of American weapons to the kingdom and hold it accountable for Khashoggi’s killing.

Al-Hathloul, 31, is best known for campaigning to overturn a ban on women driving in the conservative Muslim kingdom. She was detained shortly before the ban was ended, becoming a symbol of the complexities of the new Saudi Arabia being fashioned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The 35-year-old de facto ruler has granted women more rights, loosened social restrictions and courted foreign investment while simultaneously cracking down on domestic dissent, detaining scores of well-known clerics, businessmen, intellectuals and activists.

That tighter noose has created a new generation of Saudi dissidents and spurred increased advocacy abroad, including by Al-Hathloul’s siblings. Several Saudis in exile hired American lobbyists or lawyers to push their cases into the spotlight in the period leading up to the U.S. election.

Since Biden took office, the government’s tone has changed.

This week, the kingdom’s human rights body said a Saudi court had commuted the death sentences of three young men who were detained as minors during anti-government protests in 2011-12. They include Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr, nephew of a prominent Shiite dissident executed in 2016. All three will be freed next year after their sentences were reduced to 10 years in jail as part of a broader judicial reform plan.

Earlier this month, two American-Saudi dual nationals detained in 2019 along with a group of intellectuals and writers were temporarily released from prison pending trial, according to rights groups and people familiar with the matter.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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