Middle East

Saudi women drivers 'freed from jail'

Loujain al-Hathloul at wheel of her car Image copyright AP
Image caption A still from a video, released by Loujain al-Hathloul, shows her driving from the UAE to the Saudi border

Two Saudi women who were detained for defying the kingdom's ban on female drivers have been freed after more than 70 days in custody, reports say.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, was arrested while campaigning for the ban to be eased. Her friend Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, was detained when she went to help her.

Concerns for the women were heightened after reports that their case was being transferred to a terrorism court.

Saudi Arabia is the world's only country to forbid women from driving.

While it is not technically illegal for women to drive, only men are awarded driving licences - and women who drive in public risk being fined and arrested by the police.

Saudi women have launched a series of campaigns - including on social media - to demand an easing of the restrictions.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Under Saudi rules, women must be consigned to the passenger seat

Ms Hathloul was arrested on 1 December after she tried to drive into the kingdom from neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE). Ms al-Amoudi, a Saudi journalist based in the UAE, was also arrested when she arrived at the border to support Ms Hathloul.

Both women have a large following on Twitter. Ms Hathloul tweeted about her day-long wait at the Saudi border as she tried to enter the country.

In late December, activists said the women's cases had been transferred to a terrorism court - reportedly over comments they had made on social media, rather than for their driving.

The women were freed days after Britain's Prince Charles met Saudi Arabia's new monarch, Prince Salman.

During his visit, Prince Charles raised the case of the blogger Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment.

The case of the women drivers - like that of Mr Badawi - has shone a spotlight on Saudi Arabia just as the new monarch settles in, says BBC Arab affairs analyst Sebastian Usher.

He says some Saudis are now saying that the British prince's visit may also have helped free Ms Hathloul and Ms al-Amoudi.

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