Recently-Released Saudi Women’s Rights Activist Alleges Prison Abuse

After serving nearly three years behind bars, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was recently released from Saudi prison on a suspended sentence. al-Hathloul was imprisoned after calling for male guardianship laws to end, for women to legally be able to drive, and for communication with foreign diplomats, international media, and Saudi activists in the kingdom and abroad. United Nations rights experts said her charges were “spurious,” and the case has received global condemnation.

Although al-Hathloul has been released from prison, she still faces a five-year travel ban prohibiting her from leaving the country. The ban extends to al-Hathloul’s parents.

Since al-Hathloul’s release, human rights groups and al-Hathloul’s sisters have alleged that al-Hathloul, as well as other imprisoned women’s rights activists, were subjected to abuse during their sentences. This abuse included being held in solitary confinement for months on end, electric shocks, flogging, and sexual assault.

al-Hathloul was unable to reveal the alleged abuse while in jail, explaining to her siblings that prison guards would hold an “electroshock device” to her ear during calls and threaten to use it on her if she mentioned the abuse. Saudi authorities have denied her claims.

In addition to advocating for an end to the abuse suffered by imprisoned women’s rights activists, al-Hathloul’s sisters have called for al-Hathloul’s travel ban to be repealed. In an online news conference, Lina al-Hathloul said that “what we want now is real justice.” That justice will only come when “Loujain is completely, unconditionally free,” Lina said, and able to travel without restriction.

al-Hathloul’s allegations have sparked international outcry. Amnesty International urged Riyadh to bring “those responsible for her torture” to justice and ensure al-Hathloul faces no further punitive measures. Agnes Callamard, an independent U.N. rights investigator, welcomed Hathloul’s release, but said in a Twitter post that “the cruelty” of the Saudi rulers that “violated her most basic right to physical and mental integrity” should not be forgotten.

The allegations have also led various entities to call for Saudi Arabia to stop imprisoning protestors. The White House stated that President Joe Biden expects Riyadh to improve its human rights record and release political prisoners. Similarly, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters that “it is important that others who are in the same condition as [al-Hathloul], who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped against them.”

Reuters reports that diplomats have suggested that Saudi Arabia may be attempting to correct tensions with the Biden administration regarding political prisoners with ties to the U.S. Just this month, Saudi authorities released two U.S. activists on bail pending future trials on terrorism-related charges. In January, a Saudi appeals court nearly cut a jail sentence in half for a U.S.-Saudi doctor and suspended the rest of his term, meaning he did not have to return to jail.

Although diplomats have noted some apparent changes, Saudi Arabia must release and drop charges against all activists – whether they have U.S. connections or not. This includes the women who protested alongside al-Hathloul for a woman’s right to drive. Human rights groups have said that at least two of the dozen or so activists al-Hathloul was arrested with are still in prison, despite women’s right to drive being recognized in 2018.

Finally, in addition to freeing activists, the Saudi government must investigate the allegations of violence against prisoners. There must be punitive measures for those who violate the mental and physical wellbeing of detainees, and any perpetuation of such violence must be put to an end immediately.