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Saudi Arabia temporarily releases 3 women's rights activists

Two of those released were vilified in state-linked media as traitors and foreign enemies soon after their arrest in May.
Image: Demonstrators from Amnesty International protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy on International Women's day in Paris
Demonstrators call on Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris on March 8.Benoit Tessier / Reuters file

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Three Saudi women were granted temporary release from prison on Thursday, nearly a year after they and other women's rights activists were detained by security forces who report to the kingdom's powerful crown prince.

Two people told The Associated Press that Aziza al-Yousef, a grandmother and former professor; Eman al-Nafjan, a mother of four and linguistics professor; and a third woman, Roqaya al-Muhareb, had been granted temporary release after bail hearings on Thursday.

The official Saudi press agency reported that three female detainees had been released, but did not identify them. It said their cases were ongoing.

At least one of the women was already home with her family, according to details provided to the AP.

Amnesty International called the release "positive," but called for all charges against them and other women’s human rights defenders be dropped.

“This is a long overdue step as these women should never have been jailed in the first place and their release should certainly not be on a ‘temporary’ basis," said Amnesty's Middle East director of research in a press release.

The development comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to face widespread international criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year in an operation planned by two of the prince's top aides.

Nine U.S. senators urged King Salman in a letter last week to release political prisoners to demonstrate "belated yet welcome respect for human rights."

At least 10 women's rights defenders remain imprisoned, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi and Naseem al-Sada. More bail hearings are expected next week.

Most of the women had appeared in a Riyadh courtroom on Wednesday to submit their defense.

Several people with knowledge of the cases said the women have been charged in connection with their efforts to promote women's rights and of having contact with accredited foreign reporters, diplomats and human rights groups.

In the presence of their husbands, parents and children, the women told a panel of three judges about the physical and sexual abuse they say they were subjected to by masked interrogators during their imprisonment.

One of the women said that several men, who seemed intoxicated, appeared late one night and took her from her place of detention in Jiddah to a nearby secret location. It was there that the women say they were tortured.

Some women have said they were forcibly touched and groped, made to break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and threatened with rape and death. One of the women attempted suicide, according to information provided to the AP by people with knowledge of the cases.

The government has denied charges of abuse as "wild claims" that are "simply wrong."

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Prior to their arrest, several women said they received calls from an aide to Prince Mohammed telling them not to speak to foreign media outlets. Several were surprised to also learn they had been barred from leaving the country.

As activists faced pressure to keep silent, credit for social reforms like the decision to allow women the right to drive had largely gone to the crown prince.

The women activists had long pushed for the right to drive. They also called for an end to restrictive male guardianship laws, which give male relatives final say over a woman's ability to travel abroad, obtain a passport, marry or undergo certain medical procedures.