Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi activist who gained international attention as she publicly opposed the ban on women drivers in the country, was placed in custody by the Saudi government in May 2018 due to her activism.
The 31-year-old activist was renowned in the country for criticizing Saudi’s male system of guardianship and her promotion of human rights issues. She was initially detained in 2014 for over two months when she posted a video of herself online as she attempted to drive from the United Aram Emirates (UAE) into the Kingdom
— Lina Alhathloul لينا الهذلول (@LinaAlhathloul) February 10, 2021
Al-Hathloul gained notoriety as a prominent activist after she graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada and moved back to Saudi Arabia in 2013, according to her sister.
While attending a university in Canada, she expressed her opinion against Saudi’s ban on women drivers. She insisted the ban must be lifted for Saudi women. She moved back to the kingdom and decided to continue her efforts from there. Her sister recalled Al-Hathloul landing at the airport in Riyadh and then driving home while their father filmed her from the passenger’s seat.
That was the first video she posted, and it went viral. She was then catapulted to fame in Saudi Arabia. That was only the beginning of her passionate fight against oppression against, leading her to a head-on collision with the powerful Saudi government.
In December 2020, she was sentenced to nearly six years by a special Saudi court ordinarily reserved only for terrorism and threats to Saudi’s national security. By that time, she had already served 1001 days of confinement. She was accused of using the internet to stir controversy and for seeking out foreign involvement, charges that human rights groups saw as politically motivated.
The country lifted its female driving ban a month after her conviction in 2018. Within a year later, the Saudi government announced that 70,000 Saudi women have driver’s licenses in a population of more than 34 million citizens.
The judge suspended part of her sentence, which led to her release on Wednesday. Al-Hathloul appealed her conviction under the counterterrorism law.
After more than 1000 days in captivity, innocent Saudi women's rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, has finally been released.
Change will come to the Middle East thanks to women like her and those currently in Iran's prisons.
— Masih Alinejad (@AlinejadMasih) February 11, 2021
The timing of her release indicates the likelihood the Saudi government is attempting to appease President Biden. Biden recently requested a "reassessment" of the U.S.–Saudi relationship due to Saudi’s record of human rights violations. Several other prisoners have recently been released.
Prince Mohammed fostered close relations with the Trump administration, who were inclined to shield the kingdom from censure due to its poor human rights record. They sought to prioritize profitable weapon dealings instead.
Al-Hathloul’s release is conditional, with several restrictions, including a 5-year travel ban.