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Saudi Arabia Releases Women's Rights Activist Lujain Al-Hathloul From Prison


After almost three years behind bars, a Saudi women's rights activist has been released. Lujain al-Hathloul led the calls to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive. Her sister tweeted today, Lujain is at home, with a bunch of exclamation points and a close-up photo of her sister smiling. Lujain al-Hathloul remains convicted of crimes under the country's counterterrorism law, even though the kingdom did legalize women drivers shortly after her arrest in 2018. NPR's Fatma Tanis has been following this case and joins us now.

Hi, Fatma.


SHAPIRO: How did this release come about? And are there any strings attached to it?

TANIS: Well, in December, a judge in Saudi finally sentenced al-Hathloul to nearly six years in prison under that broad counterterrorism law. You know, the charges against her included things like sharing information with foreign diplomats and journalists and trying to change the Saudi political system. The judge also shortened her sentence with time served and other reductions. And that brings us to her release today. But as part of her sentencing, she will be under a three-year probation and a five-year travel ban.

I should also mention a big issue was her treatment in prison. Her family said she and other jailed women activists had been tortured, things like electrocution and beating. From the Saudi side, a court said this week that al-Hathloul had failed to prove that. While in prison, she had also been cut off from contacting her family for long periods of time and went on two hunger strikes to protest the condition of her detainment. In that photo that her sister released on Twitter, you can actually see the physical toll of the past years. You know, she's much thinner. She's got gray streaks in her hair, even though she's only 31 years old.

SHAPIRO: We mentioned that she was best known for her push to allow Saudi women to drive, which is a position the government ultimately supported. So why does Saudi Arabia see her as such a threat?

TANIS: Well, you know, her activism came around the time that Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had been trying to establish himself as a reformer and modernizer, opening up the kingdom to social changes like driving, as you mentioned. But analysts say that al-Hathloul was disrupting that narrative that the government was pushing forward because, you know, the crown prince made it clear that there was no room for anyone else to be pushing for reforms. He cracked down early on on dissent. He jailed critics, economists and, of course, activists.

SHAPIRO: Donald Trump and his family were, of course, very close with the Saudis. Does the new Biden administration have anything to do with this shift by the Saudi government?

TANIS: Yes. Actually, analysts say it figures a lot in this decision. As you mentioned, in the past four years, under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. had a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Trump actually defended the kingdom even after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a few years ago. But President Biden has set a very different tone. He's called for the reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship based on that country's human rights record. So this release is viewed as an effort by the Saudi government to win the favor of the Biden White House. They've recently released other prisoners as well. And President Biden actually spoke about this today at the Pentagon, saying he welcomed al-Hathloul's release. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: She was a powerful advocate for women's rights, and releasing her was the right thing to do.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that she faces three years of probation, a five-year travel ban. So is there any indication of what she will do now that she's out of prison? Is she going to return to activism?

TANIS: Yeah, so her family insists that al-Hathloul can't be considered fully free while she remains under the travel ban and other restrictions. They say there are many things to keep pushing for. You know, Saudi Arabia continues to face pressure on the condition of women's rights in the country. There's the issue of the other activists who remain in jail. And we also know that al-Hathloul has appealed her conviction under that counterterrorism law. Her sister told me she is deeply troubled to be labeled a terrorist for her activism, so that's another thing that we can expect her to keep fighting for.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Fatma Tanis.

Thank you for your reporting.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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