Saudi Lawyer Who Defended Activists Is Freed, Sources Say

(Bloomberg) -- An elderly Saudi lawyer who had defended human rights activists has been released after seven months in detention, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Ibrahim Almodaimigh, who is about 80, was arrested in May along with some of the kingdom’s most prominent female activists, including Loujain Al Hathloul, Aziza Alyousef and Eman Al Nafjan. The government accused the group of collaborating with unspecified foreign entities hostile to Saudi Arabia. Their detention was condemned by human rights groups and by Canada, leading to a diplomatic split between the two nations.

Almodaimigh might have been freed due to his advanced age, but his release could also be a sign that the government is reconsidering the arrests of dozens of activists, clerics, businessmen and intellectuals detained as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cracked down on dissent.

While the 33-year-old heir to the throne is opening up the kingdom economically and loosening social restrictions, he’s closed off a once-relatively permissive space for respectful criticism. That was brought brutally into focus with the October murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi operatives.

“This is probably a first step in revisiting many of the arrests of activists carried out in last 18 months,” Ali Shihabi, head of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-government think tank in Washington, D.C., said on Twitter. “The untraditional, and very aggressive, approach to the management of dissent that had been initiated by some top officials” is “being systematically revisited by the leadership,” Shihabi wrote.

The government’s Center for International Communication didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The killing of Khashoggi sparked global outcry and has put unprecedented pressure on Saudi Arabia’s ties with the U.S. -- where senators emerged from a briefing with the CIA chief convinced the prince had ordered the murder, something the kingdom denies -- and other foreign allies.

Almodaimigh was the eldest of the group arrested in May and had served for many years as a government adviser. As a lawyer, he had taken on several human-rights cases, including defending Al Hathloul when she’d been detained previously.

Last month, Amnesty International said that some of the activists had been subjected to abuse during their detention including electric shocks and flogging. Three people familiar with the matter reported similar accounts of mistreatment. The government has vehemently denied the allegations.

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