(New York, NY) — On behalf of writers and free speech advocates around the world, PEN America today expressed joy at the release of Loujain Al-Hathloul and Nouf Abdulaziz, Saudi women’s rights advocates and writers who were awarded the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Al-Hathloul was first detained in May of 2018, with Abdulaziz detained the following month. In December of 2020, Al-Hathloul was convicted and sentenced to five years and eight months’ imprisonment on charges of contacting “states unfriendly to the Kingdom and with providing classified information,” after her case was transferred to a specialized anti-terrorism court. PEN America today celebrates the news of their release from prison, along with several other women’s rights activists, but demands that Saudi authorities drop all constraints on their freedom. 

“What a sweet day for Loujain, to finally be reunited with her family and get a glimpse of the freedom she so richly deserves,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “But let me be clear. We have yet to be assured this is true freedom. Loujain still has draconian limitations on her movement and, most poignantly, on her ability to speak out. As she has shown—despite torture, despite abuse, despite being held for over 1,000 days—she is a resilient, bold defender of the rights of all humanity, and surely such stipulations will not silence her. But we will not relent until she is granted full freedom to speak, work, travel, and live freely.”

“And we are overjoyed to also be celebrating the news of Nouf’s release after nearly three years behind bars,” said PEN America’s Nossel. “Both these women have been demonized and attacked by their government for the act of raising their voices in defense of women’s rights and the rights of all their fellow citizens. They have called for freedom and equality, and been met with imprisonment and cruelty. Their courage and dauntlessness even in the face of such hardship has been a source of inspiration to people the world over.” 

“Today is a day to celebrate Nouf’s and Loujain’s release, and to honor the efforts of Loujain’s family, who have fought so tirelessly on her behalf. PEN America has been honored to support them in the global campaign for the release of all those unjustly detained in Saudi prisons,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America director of free expression at risk programs. “Yet we must not let up our fight to ensure they all have complete freedom. We know the Saudi government would like to claim today as a PR victory, while continuing to silence these women’s powerful voices. We have no intention of letting that happen. We will continue to rally the world in calling for their full and complete exoneration, and we will continue to press the Saudi government to respect the freedom of expression and fundamental human rights of all its people.”

PEN America has waged a multi-year campaign to free Al-Hathloul and Abdulaziz, and on behalf of their fellow writer and women’s rights activist Eman Al-Nafjan, who was honored alongside them with our 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. All three were detained in 2018 as part of the Kingdom’s broad crackdown on those supporting women’s rights, and have been subject to imprisonment, solitary confinement, and, in some instances, alleged torture by the Saudi government. Al-Nafjan was released in March 2019 but continues to face severe restrictions on her freedoms. 

PEN America has led a global campaign on their behalf, and pressed for accountability for the Saudi government for its egregious abuses of human rights, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In November, PEN America hosted a G20 counter-summit to highlight those abuses and elevate the voices of writers, journalists, and activists the regime has attempted to silence. PEN America ranked Saudi Arabia the second-worst jailer of writers and public intellectuals in its 2019 Freedom to Write Index, with 38 detained or serving prison terms during the year.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, given annually, recognizes an imprisoned writer targeted for the exercise of free expression. Of the 48 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 44 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.