Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi Women’s Rights Activist, Freed From Prison

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A Saudi activist best known for challenging the ban on women driving, Loujain al-Hathloul, was released Wednesday after the kingdom had jailed her for nearly three years on charges that Western governments and rights groups roundly dismissed as politically motivated.

“Loujain is at home,” Ms. al-Hathloul’s sister Lina wrote on Twitter with a photo of herself grinning widely during a video call with her sister. Another sister, Alia, wrote that Ms. al-Hathloul had returned to the family’s home and said her release marked “the best day of my life.”

Ms. al-Hathloul’s release comes as the kingdom’s rulers, who enjoyed particularly warm relations with the Trump administration, seek to set a new tone with President Biden, who criticized Saudi Arabia during the campaign and vowed to reassess the United States’ relationship with the kingdom.

Since entering the White House, the Biden administration has said it would emphasize democracy and human rights in foreign policy, frozen some arms sales to Saudi Arabia and reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthi rebels, who are at war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as a terrorist organization.

Publicly, Saudi officials have spoken highly of their hopes for the new administration while making quiet moves that could ease some of the strain in the relationship. Last week, the kingdom released on bail two dual Saudi-American citizens, Salah al-Haidar and Bader al-Ibrahim, who had been jailed since 2019 while on trial for terrorism-related charges.

Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, wrote on Twitter that he was “pleased” by Ms. al-Hathloul’s release. “This is a good thing,” he wrote.

In December, he had called her sentencing “unjust and troubling.”

Ms. al-Hathloul, whose trial had proceeded in fits and starts amid fierce international criticism since her arrest in May 2018, was sentenced in late December, weeks after Mr. Biden’s victory, in a way that created the basis for her release during the administration’s first weeks.

Ms. al-Hathloul, 31, rose to prominence for having publicly challenged the ban on driving and other legal restrictions that Saudi Arabia imposed on women under the so-called guardianship system. In 2014, she tried to drive her car across the border from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia and was detained for more than 70 days, turning her into a household name.

Charismatic and outspoken, she campaigned with other Saudi activists to keep the driving issue alive, helping to organize covert women’s driving protests, meeting with foreign journalists and diplomats and speaking out on Twitter.

Her public defiance won admiration from many who longed for change in Saudi Arabia but it incited attacks from religious conservatives, who accused her of seeking to corrupt the kingdom’s morals. Saudi officials, who argued that the kingdom would change at its own speed and not bow to activist pressure, considered her a problem.

Change finally came on some of the issues Ms. al-Hathloul had campaigned on after King Salman came to the throne in 2015 and empowered his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to open up the kingdom’s economy and society.

But the government gave no credit to activists such as Ms. al-Hathloul, despite their years of campaigning for the very changes Prince Mohammed was making. Instead, many of the activists were arrested, put on trial, scared into silence and barred from traveling.

In 2018, Ms. al-Hathloul was arrested on a highway in the United Arab Emirates, where she had been studying, flown back to Saudi Arabia and briefly detained. She was arrested again in May of that year and later told relatives that she and at least two other activists had been detained in a private facility, where they were tortured and sexually harassed.

This week, a Saudi appeals court rejected her torture claims, citing a lack of evidence, her family said.

She was still in jail in June 2018 when the driving ban was officially lifted and as Prince Mohammed loosened other restrictions that had dictated women’s dress and given male relatives great control over the lives of women.

She was put on trial on a number of charges that included communicating with Saudi dissidents abroad, seeking to change the kingdom’s political system and speaking with foreign diplomats and journalists.

Saudi officials insisted the charges had nothing to do with her activism. Human rights groups considered the trial a sham.

In December, a judge sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison, but suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence. She was given credit for time served, which led to her release on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, she is not technically free. Even after she finishes her sentence, she will face three years of probation and a five-year ban on traveling outside of Saudi Arabia.

“The fight is not over,” her sister, Lina, wrote on Twitter. “I am not fully happy without the release of all political prisoners.”

Human rights groups who had advocated for Ms. al-Hathloul coupled their congratulatory messages with caution about the limits that remain on her and other Saudis imprisoned for their views.

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