Prominent female Saudi activist summoned for questioning

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been summoned for questioning by Saudi security three months after her release from prison, a relative said on Sunday.

Alia al-Hathloul, who resides in exile in Europe, confirmed to The Associated Press that her sister was asked to report to the office of the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Investigation, or “mabaheth”, in the capital, Riyadh. She first announced the order on Twitter.

It was not immediately clear why al-Hathloul had been summoned. The activist was released from prison on Feb. 10 after 1001 days in detention, including stretches of solitary confinement and allegations she’d been tortured. She was tried and found guilty in December by an anti-terrorism court on charges related to her activism.

She is among the most prominent voices in Saudi Arabia who’d pushed for greater women’s rights and the right of women to drive a car before the ban was lifted in mid-2018.

The terms of her release from prison include a five-year travel ban and three years of probation. Many Saudi prisoners released on charges related to their activism and speech must also sign declarations before leaving prison, vowing to stop tweeting and posting on social media. Some are also routinely summoned for questioning during probation.

In recent days, al-Hathloul has shared posts about a women’s rights campaign against sexual harassment in Kuwait, and waded into the sensitive topic of Gulf Arab normalization with Israel. Recently, she wrote that many of her Saudi friends have stopped writing on Twitter altogether.

“When is this nightmare going to end?,” she wrote. “I WANT my friends back!”

Her release from prison in February, based on time already served, came just weeks after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who has vowed to reassess the U.S.-Saudi partnership and stand up for human rights. He welcomed the news of her release from prison at the time, describing it as “the right thing to do.”

A number of other women’s rights activists remain imprisoned, including Samar Badawi, whose brother Raif Badawi is serving 10 years in prison and was publicly flogged in 2015, and Nassima al-Sada, a rights activist from the Eastern Province.

Saudi activists say Mohammed al-Rabiah, who’d posted on Twitter in support of women’s right to drive and was detained in the sweep against women’s rights activists in May 2018, was sentenced last month to six years in prison. He’s already served three years of that behind bars. His charges included “seeking to disturb the social fabric”, “instigating strife” and carrying out “foreign agendas that disrupt security and stability.”

The rights group that focuses on Saudi human rights cases, known as ALQST, and others who have spoken with his relatives, say al-Rabiah suffered torture while in detention —- being held in a small wardrobe for several days, hung upside by his feet, and beaten unconscious.

His verdict, activists say, points to a continued crackdown on rights campaigners by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince, who has been hailed for introducing social and economic reforms, has simultaneously faced international criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.