Four female Saudi activists were temporarily released from prison on Thursday, a source familiar with the events tells CNN.
London-based Saudi human rights group ALQST and the CNN source confirmed the identities of the four released women as Hatoon Al-Fassi, Amal Al-Harbi, Maysaa al-Manea, and Abeer Namankani.
This follows the March release of three other women activists, from among the eleven standing trial for charges related to their human rights work. Many of those defendants were prominent activists campaigning against Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, which ended in 2018.
Al-Fassi, released today, was one of the first women to be issued with a Saudi driver’s license in early June 2018. A few weeks later, the well-known academic and columnist was arrested, according to rights groups.
“Hatoon al-Fassi is the epitome of the Saudi Arabia [that] Mohammed bin Salman has told Western audiences that he is seeking to create: a proud nation that is looking to the future,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an August 2018 blog post.
“It’s deeply sad and ironic that women who have spent years preparing Saudi society for this future are now imprisoned and silenced.”
Some analysts saw the crackdown on activists as an attempt by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to take credit for social reforms. Others said it was meant to appease the Crown Prince’s conservative critics.
Several women’s rights activists appear to remain imprisoned, including prominent women’s rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul. Al-Hathloul is accused of activism against the kingdom’s restrictive male guardianship laws, along with contact with foreign journalists and diplomats according to charge sheet seen by CNN.
The 29-year-old had been jailed at least twice for her activism before her current detention and her advocacy captured international attention in recent years.
In 2015, she was named the third most powerful Arab woman by Arabian Business magazine and ran for local elections when Saudi women were first permitted to stand for elections. The next year, she was photographed next to Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, at the One Young World summit.
In prison, Al-Hathloul has been physically and sexually abused, according to family members. During a visit to the prison by her parents, she told them that she was regularly whipped, beaten, electrocuted and sexually abused in a basement she called the “palace of terror,” her brother, Walid al-Hathloul, wrote in a CNN opinion piece in January.
Saudi authorities previously have not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the torture allegations. Riyadh previously denied allegations of torture in a statement to CNN following an initial Human Rights Watch report alleging the abuse in November.