Loujain al-Hathloul Released From Prison in Saudi Arabia, but Restrictions Remain
Loujain al-Hathloul, in the above still from the 2019 FRONTLINE documentary "The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia," was released from prison in Saudi Arabia this week, with restrictions.
Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia whose story became an international rallying cry against alleged human rights abuses by the Saudi government, has been released from prison after nearly three years.
“Loujain is at home!,” her sister Lina al-Hathloul tweeted on Feb. 10. The previous day, amid reports that Loujain’s release was imminent, Lina tweeted: “Can I kindly ask that we don’t use the word ‘free’ or ‘freed’ in noting Loujain’s potential release as it is not freedom. It is a potential release from prison and she is still under probation, travel ban and awaiting news of the appeal process.”
Loujain, now 31, had pushed for an end to Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, including filming herself trying to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2014. She was imprisoned for 73 days and then released, then detained for several days in 2017. In 2018 — several months after what The Washington Post said was her “forced return” to Saudi Arabia from the UAE, where she had been attending graduate school, and shortly before Saudi Arabia’s driving ban was due to be officially lifted — Loujain was rearrested on the Saudi royal court’s orders, along with other women’s rights activists.
Hathloul’s story was featured in the 2019 FRONTLINE documentary The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, which investigates the rise and rule of Mohammed bin Salman and his handling of dissent. The film traces how, after being named in 2015 as the heir to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, bin Salman implemented widely praised economic and social reforms but then moved to consolidate power in ways that included brutal government crackdowns on activists, including Loujain.
In the film, Loujain’s sister Alia al-Hathloul spoke with correspondent Martin Smith about Loujain’s 2018 arrest: “They just went up and they grabbed her from her bedroom; they — they took her,” she said.
Alia told Smith that Loujain said she endured torture in prison by people including Saud al-Qahtani, then a high-ranking aide to bin Salman.
When their parents visited Loujain, Alia says: “she showed them her thighs. And it was not only bruises; it was burns; it was so dark. And she said, ‘They were going to throw me in the sewage system.’ And they were repeating this to her; she thought she was going to die. And during the torture session, she recognized specifically one man, and he is a highly ranked adviser.”
Qahtani has not commented on any torture allegations. The Saudi Human Rights Commission did not respond to Smith’s requests for a comment on reports of the torture of Loujain and other women activists; later, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Smith: “We refuse the charge of torture. I don’t believe that’s the case.” Jubeir also insisted Loujain and the other imprisoned women were “not activists,” that there was “evidence of links to foreign entities” and “attempting to recruit people in sensitive positions,” and that their guilt “will be proven in court.”
Watch the relevant excerpt from The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia below:
According to Reuters, this past December, Loujain’s allegations of torture were rejected by an appeals court, and that same month, she was officially sentenced on charges that “include seeking to change the Saudi political system and harming national security.” In a statement to Reuters Feb. 11, the Saudi government’s media office said Loujain had not provided evidence of her torture or accused specific individuals of carrying it out, resulting in the courts finding that “the validity of the case was not proven,” and that “torture in all its forms” is forbidden under Saudi law.
“I’ve been threatened since the beginning,” Loujain said of reactions to her activism in a 2016 FRONTLINE documentary, Saudi Arabia Uncovered. “My car was broken. I almost got beaten up. Just because of the campaign, people wrote me letters on Facebook and send me all sorts of weapon pictures, saying that if I continue, I would be murdered or my family harmed.”
President Joe Biden on Wednesday described Loujain’s release as “welcome news,” calling her a “powerful advocate for women’s rights” and saying that “releasing her was the right thing to do.”
According to Human Rights Watch, although she is now out of prison, Hathloul “is banned from travel and has a suspended sentence, which allows the authorities to return her to prison at any time for any perceived criminal activity.” A number of other Saudi activists remain in prison.
Watch The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in full in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films.