31.01.2023

Family of Saudi women’s rights activist vow to get ‘real justice’ after her release

The family of prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was released from prison on Wednesday, have vowed to fight for “real justice” saying she will not be truly free until her alleged torturers are held to account and the charges and travel ban against her are dropped.

Ms Hathloul, 31, was released after nearly three years behind bars as a Riyadh court had suspended a part of her nearly six-year sentence, most of which she has already served.

Her family shared a photograph of her smiling outside of jail and revealed as soon as she was free she immediately purchased ice cream, which she has not had in three years. However, the family said while her release was a cause for celebration she is still subject to a five-year travel ban and has been put on probation.

They added that behind bars she was subjected to abuse, including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging and sexual assault. On Thursday her sisters Alia and Lina al-Hathloul claimed that Loujain told them she had been forced to say she was fine in phone calls to her family as her captors held an electric shock machine to her ear.

The Saudi authorities have repeatedly denied the accusations. An appeals court dismissed her claim that she was tortured in jail, citing a lack of evidence according to her family.

Her sisters have vowed to continue campaigning for the alleged torturers to be brought to justice, naming a top aide of crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman, whom they claim was present during the torture.

They also said they would fight to remove travel bans against several family members and would seek reparations for Ms Hathloul for her “illegal imprisonment”.

“Loujain is not free, she has been temporarily conditionally released, what we want now is that real justice,” her sister Lina said. “We won’t stop until full justice is achieved,” she added.

“I will only be satisfied when she gets her full freedom, when she is able to come and see me in Belgium, when we can travel together when she is able to speak about everything that has happened to her.”Ms Hathloul, who fought for women’s right to drive and to end the kingdom’s oppressive male guardianship system, was detained in May 2018 in a sweep of arrests of rights activists.

In December she sentenced by Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh under broad counter-terrorism laws to nearly six years in prison on charges that UN human rights experts have called “spurious” and rights groups have called a “travesty of justice”.

The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, most of which had already been served leading to her release. After she was held incommunicado last year she started two hunger strikesnd her sister Alia confirmed that she had lost weight and remained frail.

Although a key western ally, Saudi Arabia is under mounting pressure to improve its terrible human rights record particularly after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Saudi’s young and powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was accused of ordering the killing of the Washington Post columnist, an accusation he has repeatedly and vehemently denied.

After the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who has vowed to take a firmer line with Riyadh, the kingdom has faced backlash over the detention of women’s rights activists and other political prisoners.Several women activists who were arrested around the same time as Ms Hathloul remain behind bars including Samar Badawi, Nour Abdulaziz and Nassima al-Sadah.

The White House said earlier this month that Washington will take a tougher line with Riyadh.

Earlier this week the new US secretary of state Antony Blinken defended human rights in his first phone call with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan. On Wednesday night Mr Biden said, “Releasing Hathloul was the right thing to do.”  The US Senate foreign relations committee said in a tweet that her release was a “good first step” but insisted that all the charges against her should be dropped and she should be allowed to travel freely.

The family welcomed this support saying that they did not believe it was a coincidence that Ms Hathloul remained behind bars under former US president Donald Trump, who has close ties with the crown prince and was released just weeks after Mr Biden came into office.

“Without international pressure, we cannot obtain something in Saudi Arabia,” said Alia. “I would like to say thank you to Mr President for helping my sister to be released, “he added.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also welcomed her release and said that others also behind bars should be freed too, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“But I think it is important that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped against them,” he told reporters.

The sisters also called for their release. Lina said the continued detention and harassment of women rights activists in the kingdom means “women empowerment is a lie in Saudi Arabia”. She said the decision to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive as part of the crown prince’s reform programme was “for his image”.

“Structurally the problem is still there – it is giving some sweet to the West to see as reforms and positive changes, inside the country nothing has changed.”

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