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Saudi Women’s Rights Defenders Released, But Not Free

Loujain al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdelaziz Risk Return to Prison if They Speak Out

Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from prison earlier this week after spending 1,001 days in detention, a testament to the tireless campaign of her family and human rights activists around the globe since her arrest in May 2018.

While we are overjoyed to welcome Loujain home, our work is far from over. She remains banned from travel and has a suspended sentence of nearly three years on charges that define her women’s rights activism as crimes under Saudi Arabia’s terrorism regulations. This means authorities can return her to prison at any time if she decides to speak out or resume her activism.

Saudi authorities arrested al-Hathloul, 31, in May 2018 along with over a dozen other women’s rights activists in a crackdown ahead of lifting the country’s driving ban. Her family members provided accounts of the torture she endured in detention alongside at least three other women.

Nouf Abdelaziz, another rights activist, has also reportedly been released from custody. Her arrest took place after she expressed solidarity with activists amidst the May 2018 crackdown.

News of the releases are coupled this week with the announcement that a long-awaited written penal code in Saudi is forthcoming. Saudi authorities also commuted the death sentences of three men arrested for protest-related crimes when they were children.

Some claim these announcements, among others, are reflective of Saudi authorities’ responsiveness to external pressure, in particular from the Biden administration.

While these measures are important, many activists who advocated for these reforms remain imprisoned, silenced, or in exile. These reform announcements may also serve to deflect attention from continuing repression. And, though Loujain is now home, her travel ban and suspended sentence could silence her from speaking out about other human rights abuses, including those she experienced in detention.

Human Rights Watch is urging governments around the world to call for the dropping of all charges and the unconditional release of Loujain and all other detained human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. You can join us in demanding the Saudi authorities should stop silencing rights defenders. Join our campaign to help demand they do so today.

Arwa Youssef is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a Human Rights Watch staff member.

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