Saudi Arabia has released two prominent women’s rights activists imprisoned for nearly three years, a rights group has confirmed.
“Human rights defenders Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah have been released following the expiry of the sentences against them,” ALQST for Human Rights said in a tweet on Sunday.
The activists were arrested in August 2018 as part of a then widening government crackdown against peaceful dissent.
Most of the women imprisoned had campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
Badawi received the US’ International Women of Courage Award in 2012 for challenging the guardianship system, and was among the first women who signed a petition calling on the kingdom government to allow women to drive, vote and run in local elections.
She is also the sister of Raif Badawi, a prominent human rights campaigner, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 on charges of “insulting Islam” on his blog.
Al-Sadah, from the restive Shia-majority Qatif in the Eastern Province, also campaigned for the right to drive and the abolition of the guardianship system.
She was a candidate in the 2015 local elections which saw women allowed to run for the first time but her name was ultimately removed from the ballot by the authorities.
Though the decades-old ban on women driving was overturned in June 2018, Saudi authorities justified the arrest of dozens of women by saying they had suspicious contacts with foreign entities and had offered financial support to “enemies overseas”.
The two women “should never have been jailed in the first place and deserve justice and compensation for their arbitrary detention”, Adam Coogle, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.
That view was echoed by Amnesty International, which called on Saudi King Salman to “remove the travel bans on Nassima and Samar, and all the released peaceful activists”.
Several freed activists and their family members are barred from leaving Saudi Arabia, in a collective punishment that leaves them vulnerable to what campaigners call state coercion.
Saudi authorities have not yet commented publicly on the two women’s release.
ALQST for Human Rights is an independent NGO that advocates for human rights in the kingdom. It has a team in Saudi Arabia and one in London.
Founder Yahya Assiri describes the choice of the name as deliberately using a term from the Quran that means “justice”, in order to avoid the organisation being perceived as attacking Saudi Arabian culture.