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Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi women's rights activist, released from prison

“Loujain’s yearslong imprisonment has ended, but she is not free," Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch said, adding that al-Hathloul had been banned from traveling.
Image: Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 along with several other female activists, after making a name for herself as one of the few women to openly call for women’s right to drive in the deeply conservative kingdom.Marieke Wijntjes / Reuters file

Leading Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison after some 1,000 days in detention and amid persistent international pressure for her to be set free, her family tweeted Wednesday.

"The best day of my life, Loujain is at my parent's home," al-Hathloul's elder sister, Alia, tweeted.

"Loujain is at home," another sister, Lina, tweeted.

Later in the day, President Joe Biden confirmed that al-Hathloul had been released and called it "welcome news."

"She was a powerful advocate for women's rights and releasing her was the right thing to do," the president said.

Al-Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 along with several other female activists, after making a name for herself as one of the few women to openly call for women’s right to drive in the deeply conservative kingdom. She also called for an end to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male guardianship system that had long limited women’s freedom of movement.

Saudi Arabian officials did not announce al-Hathloul's release but her family's statements come weeks after a Saudi judge sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison Dec. 28, a spokesperson for the country's Ministry of Media told NBC News at the time. Two years and 10 months of her sentence were suspended and the sentence backdated to May 2018, the spokesperson added.

Al-Hathloul 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 detention came amid a sweeping crackdown, presided over by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on intellectuals, clerics, women’s rights activists and members of the royal family.

Her older sister, Alia, told NBC News in December that al-Hathloul was appealing the verdict, as well as another ruling that said she was not subjected to torture while in detention.

Al-Hathloul’s family say she was subjected to electric shocks and sexually harassed. And rights groups have said that other detained women’s rights activists have also been subjected to torture and sexual harassment. Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations.

Alia said Wednesday that a Saudi court of appeals had decided that the burden of proof was on al-Hathloul to show that she had been tortured. It remains unclear what has happened in her appeal of the other verdict.

Lina, tweeted in December that al-Hathloul was subject to a five-year travel ban.

Human rights defenders celebrated al-Hathloul's release, but said her battle was not over.

“Loujain’s yearslong imprisonment has ended, but she is not free. Banned from travel and coerced into silence by a suspended sentence hanging over her, Loujain’s ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice," said Adam Coogle, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

Abdullah Alaoudh, whose father is a popular cleric facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, said while he welcomed her release, people should remember that she is banned from traveling and is under probation.

"Another battle just began to lift the ban on her and to advocate for all other prisoners of conscience," said Alaoudh, who is research director for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at Democracy for the Arab World Now, which was founded by slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi shortly before his killing.

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A State Department spokesman said Loujain’s release "would be a very welcome development."

"What I can say is that promoting and advocating for women's rights and other human rights should never be criminalized," he said. "We have watched this case, very closely."

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a tweet he was pleased to see al-Hathloul's release. "This is a good thing," Sullivan added.

While long a U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia enjoyed especially close relations with the Trump administration.

Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign trip as president and praised the crown prince - who had portrayed himself as a reformer eager to transform Saudi Arabia's deeply conservative society- as well as the crackdown on hundreds of top businessmen, officials and members of the royal family at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh in November 2017.

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

By contrast, as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden pledged to "reassess" the U.S. relationship with Riyadh and described the kingdom as a "pariah."