Saudi Women’s Rights Activist Hathloul Freed From Jail, Relatives Say

Relatives of prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul said she was released from a Saudi prison on 10 February, following almost three years of imprisonment. She was detained with other activists in 2018, for opposing a law banning women from driving and campaigning against the Saudi male guardianship system. In December, she was charged with attempting to change Saudi Arabia’s political system, harming national unity, and using relations with foreign governments and rights groups to “pressure the Kingdom to change its laws and systems.” 

Although Riyadh’s Specialized Criminal Court for terrorism and national security (SCC) administered Hathloul a sentence of five years and eight months in prison, it includes a two-year and 10-month suspension. Her family concluded the early release was enabled by the time she already served, combined with the suspension. However, she remains on probation for three years and banned another five from foreign travel. 

Speaking with Agence France-Presse, Hathloul’s sister Lina called the verdict a “face-saving exit strategy” for Saudi Arabia’s government after facing international condemnation and pressure for her release. United Nations rights experts called Hathloul’s charges “spurious,” while French President Emmanuel Macron, who has demanded her release, welcomed the decision, sharing “the relief of her family.” United States President Joe Biden, describing Hathloul as “a powerful advocate for human rights” also approved, concluding it was “the right thing to do.” Striving for a stricter approach against Saudi Arabia than the Trump administration, he promised intensified scrutiny of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s human rights record. He is also expected to lobby the release of many dual U.S.-Saudi citizens, activists, and royal family members, detained without charges. 

According to statements by supporters and family members, Hathloul reported being tortured, sexually harassed, as well as waterboarded, flogged, and electrocuted while detained. The SCC denied these allegations, claiming it does not “condone, allow, or promote the use of torture.” Despite an appeals court’s dismissal of Hathloul’s claims, citing insufficient evidence, Amnesty International urged the SCC to apprehend “those responsible for her torture,” and refrain from further punishment like travel bans. 

Saudi Arabia’s rights record evoked global scrutiny in 2018 after government agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Notwithstanding bin Salman’s denial of ordering the assassination, it damaged his reputation. Their releasing Hathloul is significant, but world leaders are rightly insisting on further action. 

U.S. Senator and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jim Risch issued a statement on their behalf, celebrating her release but also saying that “all of her charges should be dropped and she should be allowed to travel freely.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shared in praising the decision, but expressed concern “that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her also be released and that charges be dropped against them.” 

While Hathloul’s brother Walid al-Hathloul expressed the family’s excitement about Hathloul’s release, they urge people to abstain from saying she is “freed.” Along with banned travel and probation, Hathloul is barred from speaking to journalists. Walid al Hathloul told CBS News that “[S]he will still be monitored. She will be censored. She will not be able to speak out. So that’s not freedom.” When speaking with CNN, he further criticized Loujain’s freedom status, concluding that “any release” without lifting the travel ban, an independent investigation of the charges, and their dismissal “is not freedom… Therefore, we’re far away from justice.”

In 2019, Salman proposed loosening regulations from the guardianship system that required women to seek a close male relative’s approval or accompaniment for matters of work, leisure, finances, law, and health. Women were also granted the right to obtain a passport and travel without a male relative’s permission. Such initiatives followed the reform Salman passed in 2018, granting women the right to drive. Given these actions, his imprisonment of Hathloul and other women’s rights advocates is not only unjust and inappropriate but counterintuitive. 

Upon Loujain’s sentencing, Walid al Hathloul observed Salman’s desire “to make sure that nobody would take credit for the right for women to drive.” He concluded that “his [Salman’s] personality is to make sure that he gets all the credit for himself.” Salman’s negligence over Loujain’s allegations, and his crackdown on dissidents under the guise of prosecuting terrorist detainees through the SCC, compounds damage to his global image. 

Lina al-Hathloul contended that counter-terrorism laws rushed the trial, which “failed to provide evidence beyond Loujain’s well-noted activism and failed to properly investigate the torture Loujain endured in prison.” A 2019 American Bar Association Center for Human rights report verified that the SCC was created to prosecute terrorism detainees, but its caseload “quickly expanded from alleged violent extremists to include political dissidents, religious minorities and human rights activists. They concluded it “routinely convicts individuals of terrorism charges without any meaningful evidence.” When discussing Loujain’s activism, Lina called her sentencing for advocating the same reforms that bin Salman and the Saudi Kingdom “so proudly tout… the ultimate hypocrisy.” 

The initiative to release Hathloul is seen as an attempt to appease Joe Biden, given that he hasn’t formally spoken with de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, or King Salman bin Abdulaziz. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to eliminate the “dangerous black check” given to Saudi Arabia by Donald Trump, and to make them “the pariah that they are.” Academic and expert on Middle East affairs at the University of Ottawa Thomas Juneau told Insider “[T]here is no doubt that Loujain Al-Hathloul was released as a direct consequence of the election of President Biden.”

While president, Donald Trump readily embraced the crown prince but was criticized for not condemning the Khashoggi murder and detention of peaceful activists, including Loujain’s. Deputy head of Chatham House’s MENA program told CNBC that Biden’s increased focus on human rights for the “U.S.-Saudi agenda has accelerated the response and Loujain’s release.” The release follows that of two other prisoners, but Juneau proposed a valid assessment that it “must be understood for what it is: a symbolic gesture meant to appease.” Saudi Arabia’s detainment of Loujain and other activists, as well as her allegations against the SCC, are inexcusable and should be seriously addressed.

A recently declassified U.S. intelligence report concluded that MBS approved the operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. Sanctions have been placed on various Saudi officials, such as the deputy head of intelligence, but President Biden decided not to target them against Salman. Nevertheless, the decision was criticized as contradicting his campaign promise to punish Saudi leaders for Khashoggi’s death. White House press secretary Jen Psaki proposed to Dana Bash on CNN that “there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is a mutual agreement.” Acknowledging the complexity of the “global engagement,” she reiterated that “we are going to hold them accountable on the global stage and with direct actions.” 

When speaking with press secretary Psaki, Dana Bash insightfully questioned whether punishing Saudi officials who followed orders from Salman, but not himself, is “like punishing the hitman and not the mob boss who actually put out the hit?” On the other hand, two different administration officials said sanctions against Salman were never an option, claiming that it would have been “too complicated” and threatened U.S. military interests in Saudi Arabia. In addition to Joe Biden’s informing Univision that “rules are changing” with the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons said that he looks forward to “having conversations with the administration about” how to address MBS.

Saudi Arabia’s handling of Khashoggi’s death and detainment of peaceful activists is inexcusable, but Salman’s efforts for reform should not be overlooked. Shortly after being crowned, he expressed his vision to return the country “to what we were before- a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and the world.” Perhaps, Donald Trump’s relaxed approach to Saudi Arabia’s rights record encouraged their detainment and abuses of Hathloul and other activists. Various experts have speculated that Salman’s intentions with their release are to placate increased pressure, but the focus should remain on Saudi Arabia’s actions. Despite criticisms Joe Biden has received for reneging a campaign promise, experts believe his tougher rhetoric has influenced the activists’ release.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia hold many ideological differences but share an alliance dating back decades that began with partnerships signed between oil companies from both bodies. Saudi Arabia is also a prominent buyer of U.S. arms; during his presidency, Donald Trump signed a series of arms deals that are expected to generate approximately $350 billion over a 10 year period. As Biden’s administration continues to reassess the Saudi relationship, he is also reconsidering the arms deals.

Salman has demonstrated his capability to repress people, as evidenced by his crackdown on activists and handling of Khashoggi’s death. Bypassing reform, he also demonstrated his propensity to expand freedoms for the Saudi people. Authorities must continue to guide Saudi Arabia by rewarding them when they uphold human rights and appropriately condemning them when they do not. For example, Joe Biden may be able to leverage the weapons deals to his advantage; to offset the possibility that Saudi Arabia’s releasing Loujain was for appeasement, he should delineate requirements for preserving them. If Saudi Arabia continues rights violations, then Biden should proceed with their disposal. Likewise, if they continue to release activists and show improvement, he should give greater consideration to approving them. As press secretary Psaki noted, all parties should work together with Saudi Arabia, and focus on areas of mutual agreement. 

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