Washington, DC – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today expressed relief over the release of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who had been in prison since June 2017. Al-Hathloul has called publicly for the abolition of Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which severely restricts women’s rights on a religious basis. Despite being released from prison, she remains subject to a five year travel ban, further restricting her expression of peaceful dissent. Several other Saudi women who have protested guardianship remain in prison.
“Loujain al-Hathloul’s release is long overdue and follows years of severe mistreatment in Dhahban Central Prison for peacefully asserting her freedom of belief by protesting the religious guardianship system. Prison officials reportedly subjected her to beatings, electric shock, waterboarding, and threats of rape and murder” said USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin. “We encourage the Biden Administration to determine whether Saudi officials responsible for the detention and mistreatment of Ms. Hathloul and other religious prisoners of conscience are subject to sanctions or visa bans under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.”
A November 2020 USCIRF report notes that “Saudi Arabia imposes the religious guardianship system on women, regardless of their personal or communal religious beliefs.” As a consequence of guardianship, women are effectively treated as legal minors for life. Domestic abusers also use provisions of the guardianship system to enlist the Saudi state in forcibly returning Saudi women to their households despite a 2013 law outlawing domestic abuse. Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of the guardianship system is based on the government’s singular interpretation of Hanbali Sunni Islam, which it imposes on people in Saudi Arabia regardless of their religious beliefs. Many Saudis who voice public dissent to this interpretation, including USCIRF prisoner of conscience Raif Badawi, are imprisoned.
“We commend Congress for its bipartisan efforts to secure Loujain al-Hathloul’s release and call on Saudi Arabia to release the other women who have peacefully advocated for their freedom of religion or belief,” said USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza, who advocates on behalf of Raif Badawi as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoner of Conscience Project . “While recognizing Saudi Arabia’s recent progress on loosening some aspects of guardianship, we also call for continued efforts to end this state-imposed religious interpretation on Saudis without their consent.”
In its 2020 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department designate Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). While the State Department made this designation on December 2, 2020, it issued a waiver exempting Saudi Arabia from sanctions to which it would otherwise be subject under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
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