Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul was finally released from jail this week, her sister Alia confirmed.
Alhathloul has been in prison since 2018. She was kidnapped in the UAE and sent home to face charges including “sharing information with foreign journalists” and “attempting to destabilize the kingdom.”
The charges stemmed from her participation in the Women to Drive movement – a campaign that sought to overturn the kingdom’s ban on women driving motor vehicles on public roads.
Alhathloul received a sentence of six years for her activism and her husband, stand-up comedian Fahad al-Butairi, was forced to divorce her.
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Alhathloul became a household name nearly 10 years ago when the young woman began posting videos of herself driving – even though she knew she could get arrested. At the time, Saudi law enforcement maintained roadblocks to check for female drivers.
Alhathloul ranked third in the “Top 100 Most Powerful Arab Women of 2015” list and appeared in Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2019. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Price in 2019 and in 2020.
Alhathloul was arrested and released numerous times for driving before she received her sentence. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman overturned the ban against women driving just one month after her arrest. As women throughout the kingdom began to explore the roads, Alhathloul and her colleagues were subject to various forms of torture including beating, electric shock, and waterboarding. Alhathloul was finally allowed to speak with her family last year after going on a six-day hunger strike.
In October 2020, the European Parliament demanded that Prince Salman release Alhathloul and other imprisoned activists. Alhathloul was released on February 10th, with strict rules preventing her from speaking to the media or leaving the country.
Alhathloul’s release may have something to do with the new United States president, theorizes NPR journalist Fatma Tanis.
“The kingdom appears to be cleaning up its human rights record to win favor from the new Biden White House,” says Tanis. “It’s released other prisoners in recent days, but Alhathloul’s case has been especially prominent. Her activism came as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tried to present himself as a modernizer.”
Prince Salman, who regularly jails dissenters, has a lot of work to do if he wants to win over the Democrats.