Saudi Arabia Frees Women’s Rights Activist Amid U.S. Scrutiny
Women shoppers maintain social distancing while queueing for access to an Ikea AB store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photographer: Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg)

Saudi Arabia Frees Women’s Rights Activist Amid U.S. Scrutiny

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Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul has been released after nearly three years in jail, her sister said, as the Biden administration steps up pressure on the kingdom over its human rights record.

Al-Hathloul’s sister Lina sent two tweets Wednesday saying she’d been freed, including a photograph of Loujain “at home after 1001 days in prison.”

Al-Hathloul’s arrest in 2018 made global headlines. The 31-year-old 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 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 and threatened to halt arms sales. Saudi Arabia enjoyed a particularly friendly relationship with the U.S. under Donald Trump, who refrained from criticism after Saudi agents murdered a prominent critic, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Since taking office last month, Biden has called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record, seeking the release of political prisoners including women’s rights activists. He praised the move to free Al-Hathloul Wednesday during a visit to the Pentagon.

“Releasing her was the right thing to do,” Biden said, calling Al-Hathloul a “powerful activist for human rights.”

Al-Hathloul 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 social and economic change being led 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 also cracking down on critics, including businessmen, intellectuals and activists.

The clampdown has given rise to a new generation of Saudi dissidents and prompted more advocacy abroad, including by Al-Hathloul’s siblings.

Since the change at the White House, however, Saudi Arabia has appeared to make a number of gestures.

This week, the kingdom’s human rights body said a Saudi court had commuted the death sentences of three men detained as minors during anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012. They include Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr, nephew of a Shiite Muslim dissident who was executed in 2016. They will be freed next year after their sentences were reduced to 10 years in prison as part of wider reforms to the judicial system.

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

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