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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Saudi human rights group said Wednesday that an 82-year-old former judge and prominent rights advocate has been freed in the kingdom, after serving five years of a 15-year prison sentence.
Sulaiman al-Rashudi was president of the now-dissolved Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, also known by its Arabic acronym as HASM. His age may have been a factor in his early release.
Dozens of liberal reformers, such as lawyer Waleed Abulkhair and Raif Badawi, a blogger who was publicly flogged in early 2015, remain imprisoned.
While Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has helped push through a number of social reforms to boost the economy — including allowing women to drive next year and lifting a ban on movie theaters — he has also overseen a wave of arrests this year against perceived critics and those calling for political reforms in addition to social reforms.
In early November, Saudi authorities carried out an unprecedented move, arresting a number of top princes, military officers, government officials and influential businessmen in the kingdom as part of a purported anti-corruption sweep led by the crown prince.
Also, dozens of popular Islamists, writers and academics perceived as critics of the prince's foreign policy have been detained since September. Among them is Salman al-Awda who had advocated for greater social reforms but who was also perceived as being sympathetic to Qatar, which Saudi Arabia cut off ties with in June.
At the height of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, al-Rashudi was convicted for helping establish HASM and sentenced to 15 years in prison on various charges, including disobeying the king. He remained free on bail until 2012, when the former judge who studied Islamic law, was arrested after saying that demonstrations are not religiously forbidden.
In total, 11 HASM members have been sentenced to a combined 92 years in prison. The group was shut down in 2013.
The London-based ALQST Saudi rights group said al-Rashudi was released on Tuesday. The government does not typically comment on such cases.
Al-Rashudi had been also detained in the 1990s, in 2004 and in 2007, spending some seven years in prison intermittently for his rights activism during those years and for calling for political reform in the absolute monarchy.
Prominent writer Jamal Khashoggi fled the country amid the wave of arrests this year, saying he was banned from writing his column in the Saudi al-Hayat newspaper and is now in self-imposed exile. He has written opinion pieces for the Washington Post since, saying the atmosphere of repression in Saudi Arabia had become "unbearable."
"In the starkest terms, Saudi Arabia is trying to moderate the extreme viewpoints of both liberal reformers and conservative clerics. And the arrests span that spectrum," he wrote.
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