3 female Saudi activists temporarily released after a year in prison

Three Saudi women are granted temporary release from prison, nearly a year after they and other women's rights activists were detained by security forces who report to the kingdom's powerful crown prince. A University of British Columbia graduate was not among them.

Former UBC student Loujain al-Hathloul not among those released

Demonstrators from Amnesty International staged a protest earlier this month to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Three Saudi women were granted temporary release from prison on Thursday, nearly a year after they and other women's rights activists were detained by security forces who report to the kingdom's powerful crown prince.

Two people told The Associated Press that Aziza al-Yousef, a grandmother and former professor; Eman al-Nafjan, a mother of four and linguistics professor; and a third woman, Roqaya al-Muhareb, had been granted temporary release after bail hearings on Thursday.

The official Saudi press agency reported that three female detainees had been released but did not identify them. It said their cases were ongoing.

At least 10 women's rights defenders remain imprisoned, including University of British Columbia graduate Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi and Naseem al-Sada. More bail hearings are expected next week. 

The move could still  mark a turning point, notably because two of the women released, al-Yousef and al-Najfan, were vilified in state-linked media as traitors and foreign enemies soon after their arrest in May.

Thursday's development comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to face widespread international criticism over the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year in an operation planned by two of the prince's top aides. Eleven men are on trial in Saudi Arabia for the killing.

University of British Columbia graduate and Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul remains detained. (Loujain Alhathloul/Facebook)

Since Khashoggi's grisly murder, the imprisonment of the women activists has drawn widespread criticism from members of the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and other Western capitals. Nine U.S. senators urged King Salman in a letter last week to release political prisoners to demonstrate "belated yet welcome respect for human rights."

Al-Hathloul, who has advocated for an end to the driving ban and the kingdom's male guardianship system, was previously detained twice, including for 73 days in 2014 after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates.

Most of the women detained had appeared in a Riyadh courtroom on Wednesday to submit their defence. Several people with knowledge of the cases said the women have been charged in connection with their efforts to promote women's rights and of having contact with accredited foreign reporters, diplomats and human rights groups.

In the presence of their husbands, parents and children, the women told a panel of three judges about the physical and sexual abuse they say they were subjected to by masked interrogators during their imprisonment.

The government has denied charges of abuse as "wild claims" that are "simply wrong."

Credit for reforms

Prior to their arrest, several women said they received calls from an aide to Prince Mohammed telling them not to speak to foreign media outlets. Several were surprised to also learn they had been barred from leaving the country. Concerned for their safety, the women stopped posting on Twitter and other social media sites.

As activists faced pressure to keep silent, credit for social reforms like the decision to allow women the right to drive had largely gone to the crown prince.

The women's arrest in May — a month before Saudi women were allowed to drive — may have also been a way to convey that top-down decision-making, and not activism, determines the scope and pace of change in Saudi Arabia.

The women activists had long pushed for the right to drive. They also called for an end to restrictive male guardianship laws, which give male relatives final say over a woman's ability to travel abroad, obtain a passport, marry or undergo certain medical procedures.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, right, has been urged to release political prisoners in the kingdom. (How Hwee Young/Pool Photo/Associated Press)

Allegations of torture 

In their second court hearing Wednesday, nearly a dozen of the women on trial in Riyadh told the presiding judge how they were caned on their backs and thighs, electrocuted and waterboarded by masked men who did not identify themselves.

One of the women said that several men, who seemed intoxicated, appeared late one night and took her from her place of detention in Jiddah to a nearby secret location. It was there that the women say they were tortured.

Some women have said they were forcibly touched and groped, made to break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and threatened with rape and death. One of the women attempted suicide, according to information provided to the AP by people with knowledge of the cases.

Journalists working for foreign media, diplomats and other independent observers have not been allowed to sit in on the hearings.

With files from CBC News