Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul freed from jail, relatives say

Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is seen in this undated handout picture. PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBAI (REUTERS) - Prominent women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from a Saudi prison after nearly three years behind bars, her family said on Wednesday (Feb 10), a case that has drawn international condemnation.

Hathloul, 31, was detained in May 2018 and sentenced in December to nearly six years in prison on charges that UN human rights experts called "spurious" under broad counter-terrorism laws. The court had suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, most of which had already been served.

She still faces a five-year travel ban ordered by the court.

"Loujain is at home !!!!!!" her sister Lina tweeted.

Another sister, Alia, said in a separate post that Hathloul was at their parents' home in Saudi Arabia, adding "this is the best day of my life."

She posted a picture of Hathloul smiling in a garden, looking much thinner and with grey streaks in her hair.

Rights groups and her family say Hathloul, who campaigned for women's right to drive and to end the Saudi kingdom's male guardianship system, was subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault.

Saudi authorities denied the accusations. A Saudi appeals court dismissed Hathloul's claim that she was tortured in jail, citing a lack of evidence, her family said on Tuesday.

Saudi authorities have not commented on her conviction or sentencing. There was no immediate comment on her release.

The White House earlier this month said President Joe Biden, who is taking a firmer line with Saudi Arabia than predecessor Donald Trump, expects Riyadh to improve its human rights record, including releasing women's rights activists and other political prisoners.

Hathloul, who was detained along with several other women's rights activists, was convicted on charges including seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national unity.

Human Rights Watch called her conviction a "travesty of justice".

Saudi Arabia's rights record came under intense global scrutiny after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents, which tarnished the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince has denied ordering the killing of the Washington Post columnist.

Biden friction

Diplomats have said the kingdom, whose crown prince enjoyed strong support from Trump, has in recent months appeared to be acting to address potential points of friction with the new Biden administration.

Saudi authorities released two activists with US citizenship on bail this month pending trials on terrorism-related charges. Last month, a Saudi appeals court nearly halved a six-year jail sentence for a US-Saudi physician and suspended the rest of his term, meaning he did not have to return to jail.

Hathloul's family published her indictment after her case was transferred to Riyadh's Specialised Criminal Court, established to try terrorism suspects but which has been used in the past decade to prosecute perceived dissidents. Few charges had been public by Saudi authorities.

The main charges against Hathloul included calling for an end to male guardianship and communicating with global rights groups and Saudi activists in the kingdom and abroad.

Hathloul was also charged with speaking to foreign diplomats and with international media about women's rights in the kingdom, including Reuters, which declined to comment.

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