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Saudi Arabia To Release Activist Loujain Alhathloul From Prison

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The case of one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent women is in the spotlight. She is in jail. She might be released this week. Loujain Alhathloul is known for leading the fight to overturn the ban on women driving in the kingdom. She and other activists were arrested in 2018, just weeks before the driving ban was actually lifted. But even if she is released, there might be strings attached, as NPR's Fatma Tanis reports.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Loujain Alhathloul rocketed to fame in Saudi Arabia when she released videos of herself driving even though it was banned. She was shown smiling, in good spirits despite knowing she could get arrested. The first was a trip from the airport in Riyadh.

LINA ALHATHLOUL: That was the first video that went viral with my father filming her and saying that he hopes that in 10 years, we laugh about this. It's almost 10 years now, actually, and she's still in prison for that.

TANIS: That's Alhathloul's sister Lina, who lives in Brussels. And that ride home from the airport was the beginning of a series of defiant moves that would bring her head-to-head against the powerful Saudi government. Alhathloul was in and out of jail over the years for her activism. She was finally sentenced to nearly six years in prison under a broad counterterrorism law. Charges against her include sharing information with foreign journalists and trying to change the Saudi political system.

ALHATHLOUL: When the judge finally sentenced her, she cried in court. And she said it's shocking that her own country considers her a terrorist when she - the only thing she was doing was trying to improve the condition of women in Saudi Arabia.

TANIS: But now family members say she might get out as early as this week after nearly three years in prison. The kingdom appears to be cleaning up its human rights record to win favor from the new Biden White House. It's released other prisoners in recent days. But Alhathloul's case has been especially prominent. Her activism came as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tried to present himself as a modernizer.

ABDULLAH ALAOUDH: Her existence shattered the whole government narrative of empowering women.

TANIS: Abdullah Alaoudh is the director of research at Democracy for the Arab World Now. Before that, he practiced law in Saudi Arabia for several years.

ALAOUDH: The story of her comes up every time in the Saudi public, in the Saudi imagination, as somebody who challenges the Saudi system. That's why it's a thorn to their side.

TANIS: The crown prince has repeatedly jailed dissenters, and the country still faces international pressure to improve conditions for women. Releasing Alhathloul won't ease that pressure, says Simon Henderson with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

SIMON HENDERSON: They don't understand what the whole thing is about. You know, Loujain has become a symbol for a wide range of people - ordinary people, particularly in the West, perhaps in the Middle East as well. And that isn't going to alter.

TANIS: On Alhathloul's case itself, her family expects her to keep fighting to prove that she and other prisoners were subjected to torture, something the court said just today she has failed to prove. And she'll also push for the release of other activists. She's already appealed her conviction under the counterterrorism law, and her family insists that her release, if it comes, isn't really freedom because, says her sister, it will come with bans on movement, talking to media, other activism and leaving the country.

ALHATHLOUL: For her, this is not freedom. And the worst thing that could happen to her is to be forgotten once she's out. And I think also, she knows that she's a symbol now and that if she gives up, then she gives up on everyone else as well.

TANIS: The Saudi embassy in the U.S. did not respond to NPR's repeated requests for comment on Alhathloul's case. Simon Henderson says she'll continue to be an influential figure.

HENDERSON: She comes across as being somebody of stunning strength, inner strength. My only regret is that that inner strength is going to be tested yet once again.

TANIS: And even if she's released this week, her cause is going to continue, and her freedom and safety remain a concern.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.