Iconic Saudi women’s rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul released from prison after sustained international pressure

FIDH celebrates the release of Loujain al-Hathloul from prison yesterday. Following persistent pressure from her family, human rights groups, and the international community, Loujain was conditionally released after spending nearly three years behind bars on trumped up charges.

While Loujain was released conditionally on 10 February 2021, the spurious charges brought against her have not been lifted and she faces a five-year travel ban.

The 31-year-old boldly campaigned for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia as well as against the kingdom’s repressive male guardianship system. During her 1,001 days in prison, Saudi authorities subjected Loujain to torture and sexual abuse, and she was deprived of medical care and denied contact with her family and lawyer.

Loujain’s release sparked relief and joy for her family, supporters, and human rights advocates that had campaigned on her behalf. FIDH, alongside its Saudi member organisation, ALQST, had long mobilised in favour of Loujain and other Saudi women’s rights defenders, including through a 2018 report detailing challenges faced by Saudi women standing up for their most basic rights; campaigns in 2020 and 2021 denouncing the use of the Dakar Rally, an off-road endurance race, as a public relations tool to whitewash (or ‘sportswash’) the image of Saudi Arabia; and the #ForFreedom campaign.

While her release is a major victory for human rights and shows how sustained, international mobilisation can be effective in influencing even the most repressive regimes, those responsible for the injustices endured by courageous human rights defenders have, thus far, enjoyed impunity. They must be held accountable for their persecution of women’s rights defenders. FIDH will continue to work toward the release of those who remain imprisoned. Loujain’s brother Walid called for justice in a tweet. “Today is a day of celebration, but there’s a long way to go for justice to be done.”

Several other women’s rights defenders detained in mid-2018 remain imprisoned, including Samar Badawi and Nassima El Saada. Last November, FIDH and 33 other human rights groups wrote to the President of the Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia urging their release.

Loujain – who has become an icon of the defence of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – has paid a heavy price for her brave, peaceful actions. She bears the double burden of being both a woman and a human rights defender, in a country that tolerates neither.

Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the ban on women driving, in 2018, was thanks to the efforts of Loujain and other outspoken activists. Yet rather than commend them, the authorities punished them – subjecting them to imprisonment, judicial harassment, and even torture and sexual abuse while in custody.

Loujain has received recognition at the highest levels for her activism for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she is also a nominee for the 2021 Martin Ennals Award as well as the 2020 Václav Havel Prize.

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