US and Canadian authorities are celebrating the release of a Saudi women's rights activist after 1,001 days in prison, though allies say she is not yet "free." Loujain al-Hathloul, a 31-year-old activist who attended university in Canada, was arrested in 2014 as she defied a ban on women driving. She continued to fight for women's rights, including the removal of male guardianship laws, before she was detained again in May 2018. She said she endured torture and sexual abuse before finally facing trial in December, per the CBC. She was convicted of agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda, and using the internet to harm public order under a vague anti-terrorism law and sentenced to almost six years in prison. However, the judge suspended two years and 10 months of that sentence and gave credit for time served, setting up a March release.
Her family confirmed her release, earlier than expected, on Wednesday, sharing a photo of the activist smiling at home, per the AP. Canadian authorities expressed relief at the development. President Biden said al-Hathloul is "a powerful advocate for women's rights, and releasing her was the right thing to do." At the Guardian, Martin Chulov writes that this result was "near the top of Joe Biden's foreign policy to-do list." He also sees it as a "peace offering" from Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, with his regime worried about frostier US relations now that former President Trump is gone. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch caution that the activist is not free, however, as she is on a three-year probation and subject to a five-year travel ban, per NBC News. "We remain concerned" as she is "still a convicted terrorist in Saudi Arabia solely for her peaceful activism," an Amnesty rep tells the CBC. (Read more Saudi Arabia stories.)