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Saudi Women's Rights Activist Summoned, Under Watch As Conviction Is Upheld

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Loujain al-Hathloul led the charge for women to be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. She went to prison for doing so. And even though she was released in February, the activist is still having her freedoms curbed, as NPR's Ruth Sherlock explains.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Speaking from his home in Canada, Loujain al-Hathloul's brother Walid tells me what happened.

WALID AL-HATHLOUL: So yesterday, Loujain received a call being asked to visit the security agency.

SHERLOCK: The interior ministry's security office showed al-Hathloul a supreme court verdict that upholds the conviction against her. Al-Hathloul was arrested in 2018 and convicted in a counter-terrorism court for charges that include trying to change the Saudi system. Her conviction was widely condemned by rights groups and some Western governments. She spent almost three years in prison before being given conditional release, just as the Biden administration said it would take a closer look at Saudi Arabia's human rights record. Al-Hathloul's brother Walid says that it's significant that she was called to the interior ministry and not the courts and that though she's been released, she isn't really free.

AL-HATHLOUL: She is, you know, constantly monitored, threatened, summoned, questioned.

SHERLOCK: The family says the supreme court ruling means she continues to be under a five-year travel ban that stops her from leaving Saudi Arabia. Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a U.S.-based advocacy group, says the Saudi government has imposed these travel bans on thousands of people.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: And that's a way of keeping them silent. That's a way of holding them hostage from speaking out.

SHERLOCK: In 2018, in Saudi Arabia did repeal the ban on women driving. And they have released some activists, but others remain in jail. The Saudi Embassy in Washington said it would review an NPR request for comment.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "KNUDDELMAUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.