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Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul's family says Biden "contributed a lot" to getting her released

London — A sister of Saudi Arabian women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was let out of prison on Wednesday after more than 1,000 days, has said the Biden administration "helped and contributed a lot in my sister's release." The family also said that al-Hathloul, who was placed on probation for three years and barred from leaving Saudi Arabia for five, would continue to seek justice for torture she says she was subjected to while incarcerated.

Saudi Women Arrests
A November 2014 image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on December 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia.  Loujain al-Hathloul/AP

"Saudi Arabia's situation is tightly connected to what's going on in the U.S.," al-Hathloul's sister Alia said at a news conference on Thursday. "It's a fact that Loujain was imprisoned during the previous administration [in 2018], and it was really hard to get anything. And it is a fact that she was released a few days, few weeks, after Biden's arrival to power… I even would say, thank you, Mr. President."

Mr. Biden said on Wednesday that releasing al-Hathloul was "the right thing to do," but it wasn't clear whether the new U.S. administration had made any intervention on her behalf with the Saudi royal family. Senior Biden aides had previously condemned her prison sentence. 

Loujain al-Hathloul is a public figure in Saudi Arabia, having fought for years for women to have the right to drive in the country. Her family says she has more recently been the subject of what they call a widespread defamation campaign.

She was imprisoned in 2018 shortly after Saudi Arabia's new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to power. Selling himself to the West as a young leader aiming to reform the ulta-conservative Islamic kingdom, bin Salman, called MBS for short, quickly gave women the right to drive and reformed the country's strict guardianship laws, under which women could only do basic tasks with the permission of a male "guardian." 

Saudi Arabia sentences women's rights activis... 02:40

But soon after those moves, he cracked down on dissidents. Many of the activists who had fought for the reforms he appeared to be championing were arrested and jailed on vague charges of disrupting the peace, including al-Hathloul. As of Wednesday, she was back at her home in Saudi Arabia, but her relatives made it clear that she is not free.

"When we talk about women's rights, it's only about women driving, and that's thanks to Loujain and the other activists," Lina al-Hathhloul, the activist's other sister, said on Thursday at the news conference with Alia. 

"When we talk about other things involving women's rights, we don't see any real improvement. It's all about whitewashing," said Lina. "We've never had the state security as it is now, you know, that they can just break into a house, take a person without a warrant, make them disappear for years… There's really an atmosphere of fear under MBS."

Mohammad bin Salman on imprisoned activist 03:06

Both sisters said that al-Hathloul, who is not permitted to speak to journalists or use social media to communicate during her probation, was dedicated to seeking justice for the torture she says she experienced while in custody, despite having her allegations dismissed by a Saudi court twice already.

They explained how sometimes she would call them from prison and say she was fine, but that she told them later: "I had the electrocution thing on my ear and if I would complain about anything, they were ready to electrocute me."

"She is very determined to use all means that exist within the legal framework in Saudi Arabia in order to exhaust all the possibilities in order to, I would say, obtain her rights," Lina al-Hathloul said. "It was unjust, and she doesn't like injustice."

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."

While al-Hathloul isn't allowed to leave her country, her sisters, who live in Europe, are also unable to travel back to Saudi Arabia, for fear of getting trapped there. Alia, who lives in Belgium, said that on the night of her sister's release, they both went to get ice cream.

"Though it's very cold here and it's snowing, we felt that we need to share the same thing so we went to buy the same thing, to try to be with her as much as we can."

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