Who is Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi activist who was released after more than 1,000 days in prison?

Loujain al-Hathloul's release came about a week after the US called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record, including releasing all political prisoners and women’s rights activists.

On Wednesday, Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the most prominent women’s rights activists from Saudi Arabia was released after spending more than 1000 days in prison. Her release came about a week after the US called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record, including releasing all political prisoners and women’s rights activists. Human rights are also one of the key issues in US-Saudi relations that has been emphasised by US President Joe Biden during his campaign for the 2020 presidential elections.

In December 2020, she was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison by a Saudi Specialised Criminal Court. The Saudi Arabian authorities charged her under the state’s broad counter-terrorism laws for undermining national security and trying to change the political system of the country, a Reuters report said.

Following the sentence, al-Hathloul’s sister Lina al-Hathloul posted on Twitter: “Loujain cried when she heard the sentence today. After nearly three years of arbitrary detention, torture, solitary confinement – they now sentence her and label her a terrorist. Loujain will appeal the sentence and ask for another investigation regarding torture”.

Even so, al-Hathloul’s time in prison was due to end since the court suspended 34 months of her sentence and calculated the prison verdict from May 2018 onwards, when she was first detained by the authorities.

The American Bar Association (ABA) notes that the Saudi authorities created the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) in 2008 to prosecute thousands of detainees who were kept in detention “without charge” since being held after the terrorist attacks — claimed by al-Qaeda — inside the kingdom in 2003. However, shortly after the setting up of this court, the caseload was expanded from the trials of alleged violent extremists to include political dissidents, religious minorities and human rights activists.

Who is al-Hathloul?

al-Hathloul has been instrumental in the movement to lift the driving ban on women and the “Wilayah” male guardianship system. It was only last year in August that Saudi Arabian women were allowed to travel abroad without obtaining permission from a male guardian, apply for passports and register their marriages and divorces.

However, the importance of the step for women’s rights notwithstanding, both critics and detached observers noted at the time that the dismantling of the kingdom’s rigid ‘male guardianship’ system was probably only an effort to deflect from its deeply questionable human rights record, which includes the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.

In 2014, al-Hathloul, who had a driving license issued in the UAE, was detained for 73 days for attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the UAE. Following this, weeks before the Saudi Arabian authorities lifted the ban on women drivers in 2018 (the last such ban in the world) she was arrested along with several other women’s rights activists.

In 2015, al-Hathloul stood for elections in Saudi Arabia, which was also the first time that women were allowed to vote and stand for elections. Even so, her name was not added to the ballots, according to Amnesty International.

al-Hathloul was detained in 2018 on grounds of national security. She was charged under Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime law that penalises the production and transmission of material deemed to impinge on public order, religious values, public morals and life, as per UN Human Rights.

For over 10 months after she was detained, she was not charged and there was no trial. According to Amnesty International, she was waterboarded, given electric shocks, was sexually harassed and was threatened with rape and murder during this time.

What is the status of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia?

Even though Saudi Arabia seems to be progressing towards a more open society, with the ban on women drivers lifted in 2018 and women not requiring permission from their male guardians to apply for a passport anymore, there have been several instances of women rights activists being arrested.

Further, the state has been criticised for repressing the freedom of expression, association and assembly and it is well known that Saudi Arabia takes a dim view of dissent and has targeted a number of political activists in the recent past.

Khashoggi, a prominent journalist who was murdered in October 2018, had left Saudi Arabia in 2017 and lived in self-exile in Washington DC since he feared that the state would take action against him if he was vocal about his political views. In July 2018, just months before he was murdered, Khashoggi told The Economist that he was nervous. “I was banned from writing. I was banned from tweeting at that time,” he said. He also told the magazine that he would not consider returning to Saudi Arabia since he did not want to risk losing his freedom. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has concluded that Kashoggi’s assassination was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.

But while Khashoggi’s murder has been one of the most high-profile cases, there are other instances as well. For instance, the case is of Saudi scholar Salman al-Awdah who called for reform in Saudi Arabia and was ostensibly arrested after his Twitter post on September 9, 2017. He had tweeted: “May God harmonise between their hearts for the good of their people”. However, it was seen by the Saudi state as a call for reconciliation with Qatar. al-Awdah has been charged with 37 counts and faces the death penalty.

According to a report published by the British non-profit Reprieve, Saudi Arabia has carried out its 800th execution under the crown prince’s five-year-rule and as per Amnesty International, the kingdom executed 184 people in 2019.

In 2014, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and also sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” and for setting up a liberal media forum. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals. Badawi, who was arrested in 2012, had previously called for May 7 to be observed as a “day for Saudi liberals”. The first 50 lashes of his sentence were carried out in public view in Jeddah on January 9, 2015.

In April this year, Saudi Arabia’s state human rights commission said it is abolishing flogging as a punishment for crime. Before it was abolished, flogging was mandatory as a form of corporal punishment for several offences including murder, breach of peace, homosexuality, consumption or possession of alcohol, adultery, pestering girls, spending time with the opposite sex, insulting Islam and bringing in liqueur chocolates into the country, among others.

Before the ban on women drivers was lifted in 2018, any woman caught driving could also be sentenced to flogging. This form of corporal punishment could be used by judges at their discretion as an alternative or in addition to other punishments.

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