DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Two Saudi women’s rights campaigners have been released from prison, three years after a sweeping crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman targeting female activists who’d peacefully advocated for greater freedoms, rights groups said Sunday.
It now appears that all the women’s rights activists detained in the 2018 sweep have now been released from prison, although the status of one woman remains unclear.
The London-based ALQST rights group, which primarily focuses on Saudi Arabia, said the two women — Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada — were released sometime late Saturday or early Sunday. Human Rights Watch also confirmed their release.
The women had been sentenced to five years imprisonment, two of which were suspended.
They had been vocal critics of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws, which gave husbands, fathers and in some cases a woman’s own son control over her ability to obtain a passport and travel. They had also advocated for the right of women to drive. Both restrictions have since been lifted.
The two women remain barred from travel abroad for five years as part of their conditional release, rights groups contacted by The Associated Press said. Like other Saudi women’s rights activists released from prison, rights groups said the two women likely face bans on speaking to the media and posting online about their case.
Most of the women detained in the crown prince’s campaign were arrested in May 2018, but Badawi and al-Sada were detained several weeks later in July of that year.
Nearly a dozen of the women previously told Saudi judges they were caned on their backs and thighs, electrocuted and waterboarded by masked men during interrogations. Some women say they were forcibly touched and groped, and threatened with rape and death. One of the women attempted suicide in prison.
The Saudi government has not commented on the individual cases of most of the women nor publicized their charges.
It is unclear what Badawi and al-Sada were found guilty of. Several people with knowledge of al-Sada’s case said she’d been charged under a cybercrime law and was found guilty of undermining public order by communicating with foreign journalists and organizations.
Badawi is a well-known human rights activist based in Jiddah who first came to prominence when she petitioned Saudi courts to remove her father as her legal guardian on grounds he was barring her from marrying potential suitors. Years later, she spoke out in defense of her brother Raif Badawi, who is serving 10 years in prison over internet posts critical of the ultraconservative religious establishment. He was publicly flogged in 2015 under King Abdullah. The mother of two was later married for a time to Waleed Abul-Khair, a human rights lawyer currently serving 15 years imprisonment.
Al-Sada is a prominent women’s rights activist from the Eastern Province, an area heavily populated by the kingdom’s minority Shiite Muslims. She was also outspoken in defense of greater rights for Shiites. Amnesty International said she had been held in solitary confinement for a year, and was not allowed to see her children or her lawyer for months at a time.
The arrests of the women, some of whom are mothers, grandmothers and well-known college professors, caught many by surprise because it came around the same time the kingdom lifted its longstanding ban on women driving in June 2018.
Months later, the crown prince faced widespread international criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in an operation planned by two of the prince’s top aides, although neither was found guilty by Saudi courts. Eleven men faced trial in Saudi Arabia for the killing. The kingdom maintains the crown prince had no knowledge of the operation, despite a U.S. intelligence assessment implicating him.
Activists with knowledge of female activist Maya’a al-Zahrani’s case said she was convicted in December by the same counter-terrorism court as prominent rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and received a similar sentencing. It’s unclear whether al-Zahrani has been released from prison.
Al-Hathloul was released from prison in February after serving nearly three years in detention. She’d been convicted on charges related to her activism, such as agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order.
Several of the Saudi men who supported women’s rights activists remain detained.