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

Prominent Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from custody and was back at home on Wednesday, according to her sister, after being sentenced in December to six years in prison under a vague law meant to combat terrorism. A Saudi official confirmed her release to CBS News.

She had been in jail since 2018, and her release after 1,001 days is due to time served and a partially suspended sentence. But while she's out of prison, al-Hathloul's family has said she is not really free, as she'll be banned from leaving her country for five years and will not be allowed to speak with journalists.

Al-Hathloul was one of a handful of activists to fight for women's rights in the ultraconservative Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, campaigning for women to have the right to drive before they were permitted to do so in 2018.

She also demonstrated against the country's restrictive guardianship laws, which required women to get permission from a male "guardian," usually a relative, to do basic things like work and acquire a passport. Those laws were reformed in 2019.

According to local, state-linked media reports, al-Hathloul was found guilty by the kingdom's anti-terrorism court of charges including agitating for change and using the internet to harm public order.

In 2018 and 2019, then-new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman passed a series of reforms, including granting women the right to drive and modifying guardianship laws, leading many to believe that he would be a younger, more modern leader than his father.

But soon after, bin Salman cracked down on dissidents, arresting many of the women's rights activists who had campaigned for the reforms he seemingly championed.

"The crown prince wanted to make sure that nobody would take credit for the right for women to drive," Loujain al-Hathloul's brother, Walid, told CBS News when she was sentenced in December.

"His personality is to make sure that he gets all the credit for himself."

Al-Hathloul's family say that while she was in custody she was subjected to electric shocks and threats of rape — all supervised, they say, by Saud al-Qahtani, a former close associate of the Crown Prince. Al-Qahtani is also accused of directing the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who angered the authorities. 

A Saudi court recently ruled there was no evidence of torture in al-Hathloul's case.

"It was brutal. It was insane. It was inhuman," Walid said, adding that if al-Hathloul was prevented from leaving Saudi Arabia upon her release from jail, she still wouldn't really be free.

"She will be still monitored. She will be censored. She will not be able to speak out. So that's not freedom," he said.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch issued a statement on behalf of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, on Wednesday, welcoming al-Hathloul's release from prison as, "a good first step, however, all of her charges should be dropped and she should be allowed to travel freely."

CBS News correspondent Holly Williams contributed to this report.

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