Saudi Arabian authorities on Thursday temporarily released at least four women’s rights activists whose arrests, on charges of undermining state security, had provoked an international outcry and added to criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record.
The detainees who were freed pending trial included Hatoon Al Fassi, a historian; researcher Abeer Namankani; and Amal Al Harbi, according to Mohammed al-Turki, who works in the office of Faraj al-Oqla, a lawyer who represents the women.
They “are now at home with their families,” Al-Turki said, pointing out that further court proceedings await the women after the holy month of Ramadan. “They are in good health,” he added. “We saw them. They’re in good spirits.”
Loujain Al-Hathloul, 29, the best known of the female detainees, remains in custody. Three more women who had been in custody with them were temporarily released in March. Their trial is expected to resume after Ramadan.
It wasn’t clear why the women were released or under what conditions, and the government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
It could be a gesture of leniency before Ramadan. Sending the women home after months of detention — even temporarily — could also be a sign that the kingdom is trying to bring an end to a case that stirred controversy at home and abroad as it also deals with the fallout from the murder of the columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and continuing criticism of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
The women had become a symbol of a political crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even as he opens up the economy and loosens social restrictions. Their arrests, beginning in May 2018, precipitated a diplomatic crisis with Canada that’s yet to be fully resolved.
Some of the women had fought for years to end Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving — lifted soon after their arrests — and spoke out against the country’s guardianship system, which requires women to get permission from a male relative to travel or marry.
Prince Mohammed has said their arrests were unrelated to their activism. The group was accused of “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom,” the prosecutor has said.
Al-Hathloul, however, faces charges that include communicating with diplomats and journalists, according to people familiar with an indictment that makes no mention of earlier statements that the women were arrested for ties to foreign intelligence.
The women’s detention came under even more scrutiny after human rights groups said some of them were tortured. The government has vehemently denied such mistreatment and said that the prisoners were granted all of their rights. But several of the prisoners testified during their trials that they had been physically and psychologically abused, according to people familiar with the matter.
The kingdom’s overall clampdown on domestic criticism doesn’t appear to be softening. In April, authorities arrested several writers and intellectuals — including two dual Saudi-American citizens — and separately, carried out a mass execution of 37 men, many of them members of the Shiite minority who had been convicted of involvement in unrest and violence during the Arab Spring.