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Loujain al-Hathloul: Saudi activist's family thanks Biden after release from jail

The women's rights activist's incarceration had led to growing international pressure and further scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.
Image: Women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul poses at home
Women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul at home following her release from a Saudi prison on Wednesday.Courtesy family of Loujain al-Hathloul / via Reuters

LONDON — The family of Saudi Arabian women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul thanked President Joe Biden on Thursday, a day after she was released from jail, and urged continued international pressure on the Saudi regime.

"Of course Saudi Arabia's situation is tightly connected to what is going on in the U.S.," al-Hathloul's sister, Alia, told reporters during a virtual news conference on Thursday.

It was clear Biden's arrival in office had "contributed a lot in my sister's release," she said. "I would even say thank you Mr. President."

Loujain was released from jail on Wednesday after more than 1,000 days in detention. However, she remains on probation for three years and under a travel ban for five years, her family said.

NBC News has not independently verified the terms of her release.

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Loujain's incarceration had led to growing international pressure and further scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

She was arrested in May 2018 along with several other female activists openly calling for women's rights — among them the right to drive — in the deeply conservative kingdom. She also called for an end to the restrictive male guardianship system that limits freedom of movement.

Her detention came amid a sweeping crackdown, presided over by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on clerics, women's rights activists and fellow members of the royal family.

The ban on women driving in the country was lifted in 2018.

In an at-times emotional briefing with reporters via video on Thursday, her two sisters said that although they were relieved she was out of jail, the fight would not end there.

"What we want now is real justice," her sister Lina said. "That Loujain is completely, unconditionally free."

She called for continued pressure on the government and warned Loujain's release "doesn’t mean women’s rights in Saudi Arabia have improved."

Her sister Alia said it was an "unforgettable" moment when she learned of Loujain's release on Wednesday, adding that she seemed positive and resilient and had been out for celebratory ice-cream.

"It was the Loujain I know," she said. "I'm so proud of her ability to keep high hopes and to be very positive."

Alia said her sister would likely "use all means that exist within the legal framework in Saudi Arabia to exhaust all the possibilities in order to obtain her rights."

"She is a very determined woman, she is very inspiring and has great ideas," she added. "I don't know what her priorities are today. I imagine she needs time."

Loujain was convicted of agitating for change in Saudi Arabia while serving a foreign agenda, using the internet to harm public order and cooperating with individuals and institutions that were involved in crimes under anti-terror laws, according to the state-linked Saudi news site Sabq. NBC News was unable to independently verify the reporting.

Her family say she was subjected to torture, electric shocks and sexual harassment, something human rights groups have said other detained women have also faced. Saudi Arabia has denied all the allegations and earlier this week the courts dismissed the torture claims citing a lack of evidence, her family said.

Saudi officials have not commented publicly on Hathloul's conviction, sentencing or release.

Long a U.S. ally, oil-rich Saudi Arabia enjoyed especially close relations with the Trump administration. Trump chose Saudi as his first foreign trip as president and frequently praised the crown prince, who had portrayed himself as a reformer eager to transform a deeply conservative society.

Trump also stood by the kingdom after the CIA concluded that the crown prince ordered the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to "reassess" the U.S. relationship with Riyadh.

He called Loujain's release "welcome news" on Wednesday, adding that "she was a powerful advocate for women's rights and releasing her was the right thing to do."

Her sister Alia said it showed his administration "made it clear that they care about human rights."