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Saudi Arabia | Woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul is home, but not free

ISHR, as part of the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, welcomes the release of two women human rights defenders from detention. On 10 February 2021, it was reported that Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Nouf Abdulaziz have been released conditionally from prison after spending over two and a half years in detention solely for advocating for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including the right to drive and the dismantling of the male guardianship system.

Loujain’s sister, Lina Al-Hathloul shared the news on her Twitter with a joyful photo showing the two sisters on a video call with big smiles drawn on their faces. She captioned it “Loujain is at home!”

Loujain and Nouf were among several activists detained in a crackdown on women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia in 2018. Some of them have been conditionally released while others remain arbitrarily detained. We recall that their release is conditional and that they could be detained again if they continue their activism, as they were sentenced on charges based on their legitimate human rights activism. Some were detained incommunicado with no access to their families or lawyers during the first three months of their detention and subjected to chilling smear campaigns by State media.

“Loujain Al Hathloul’s and other WHRDs’ conditional release demonstrates the impact of the international community’s pressure”, said Salma El Hosseiny, ISHR’s Human Rights Council Programme Manager. “We will continue the fight until all human rights defenders, including WHRDs, are released from prison, are able to carry out their legitimate human rights work without reprisals and until Saudi Arabia guarantees their right to remedy for the violations they were subjected to”, added El Hosseiny.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights documented the torture of Saudi WHRDs. ISHR with its partners made a joint submission to Committee against Torture (CAT), detailing the physical and psychological torture, such as electric shocks, flogging and sexual assault.

In September 2019, Loujain’s sister Lina urged the UN Human Rights Council to hold those who tortured Loujain accountable, including Saud Alqahtani, the former senior advisor to the Royal Court. Loujain herself – backed up with civil society’s intensive advocacy, her family’s support and the international community including the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Procedures, and the CEDAW Committee – has bravely spoken out about her torture and ill-treatment. She refused to sign a statement drafted by the Saudi authorities in which she would deny all the torture she has endured, in exchange for her release. Loujain also went on hunger strikes to protest the conditions of her detention after being denied regular access to her family. To date, no one has been held accountable for her torture and ill-treatment.

ISHR shares its partners’ concerns that many Saudi women and women’s rights activists are still in prison but neither they nor their families can speak, out of fear of reprisals.

We reiterate our calls on the Saudi authorities to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all women’s rights defenders from detention, drop all charges against them, and lift the travel bans against them and their families
  • Ensure independent investigations into the torture of WHRDs, hold those responsible accountable and ensure their right to remedy
  • Guarantee a safe and enabling environment for all human rights defenders, including WHRDs, guaranteeing their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly without any risk of reprisals and intimidation

Background information

On 28 December 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced Saudi WHRD Loujain Al-Hathloul to 5 years and 8 months in prison. The sentence includes a suspension of 2 years and 10 months in addition to the time already served. Al-Hathloul is also required to serve three years of probation during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity. She will also be placed on a 5-year travel ban. According to ALQST for Human Rights, the SCC sentenced WHRD Miyaa Al-Zahrani to 5 years and 8 months in prison, with 2 years and 10 months suspended.

ALQST reported that “WHRDs Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi remain in detention. In a worrying development, the Public Prosecution has appealed the initial sentence issued on 25 November 2020 by the Criminal Court against al-Sadah of five years and eight months in prison, half of it suspended, seemingly with the aim of securing an even harsher sentence”.

The Free Saudi Activists Coalition* condemns the verdict, urges all States to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their continued violation of human rights, and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all detained Saudi women and human rights defenders.

The Saudi government has taken measures to implement some of the activists’ demands: lifting the ban on driving for women, and some restrictions of the male guardianship system, although the patriarchal and oppressive system is not dismantled yet.

*The Free Saudi Activists Coalition consists of Equality Now, Women’s March Global, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights Bahrain (ADHRB), Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and CIVICUS,

Photo: FreeLoujain Campaign

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