Middle East

Saudi women's rights activists temporarily released

Amnesty International urges Saudi authorities to release activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Paris, March 8, 2019 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Protesters called for the female activists' release at the Saudi embassy in Paris last month

Saudi Arabia has temporarily released three female activists facing charges related to human rights work and contacting foreigners.

Two sources told Reuters that three women had been released, and more would be freed on Sunday.

Amnesty International and UK-based Saudi rights organisation, ALQST, named the women as Eman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef and Roqaya al-Mohareb.

Saudi state media said the releases were only provisional.

The three women are among 11 women on trial after being charged under the country's cyber-crimes law, which can carry a sentence of up to five years in jail.

Lynn Maalouf from Amnesty welcomed the releases but said it should not be on a temporary basis.

"They have been locked up, separated from their loved ones, subjected to torture and threats for simply peacefully calling for women's rights and expressing their views," she said.

"Amnesty International calls on the Saudi authorities to drop all the charges against them and the other women's human rights defenders, who all must be released immediately and unconditionally."

What's the background?

The detentions began last May, shortly before a ban on women driving was lifted.

At the time, the public prosecutor's office said they were suspected of harming national interests and "offering support to hostile elements abroad". Some of the activists were later released.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Aziza al-Yousef is among the three activists to have been freed

Four of the women have alleged they were tortured whilst in detention, while the brother of one jailed activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, recently told CNN his sister had described being regularly whipped, beaten, electrocuted and sexually abused in a basement she called the "palace of terror".

Ms al-Hathloul's admission that she once applied for a job at the UN is being used as part of the kingdom's case against her, CNN reported.

Also among the detained women is the Saudi-American human rights campaigner Samar Badawi, sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi.

Ms Badawi, who was given the US International Women of Courage Award in 2012, is known for challenging Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system.

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam" online in 2014. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Canada and has become a Canadian citizen.

Scrutiny of human rights in Saudi Arabia has intensified since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.

On Thursday the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard said that the kingdom's secretive hearings for 11 suspects accused in Mr Khashoggi's murder fell short of international standards, Reuters reported.

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