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Loujain al-Hathloul
illustration Callum Abbott

Fighting to free my sister, jailed women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul

In December 2020, Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to nearly six years in prison under a vague counterterrorism law for her women’s rights campaigning in Saudi Arabia – here, her sister Lina shares their ongoing battle

When Lina al-Hathloul was younger, she wanted to take boxing classes, but her parents wouldn’t let her. Lina and her six siblings are from the Qassim region of Saudi Arabia, a particularly conservative part of the country, and grew up between Jeddah, France, and Riyadh. “My parents said, ‘It’s not really something that a woman should do; there are so many other sports that are more feminine’, and so on,” she recalls over the phone from Berlin, where the 25-year-old is currently based. So she spoke to her older sister, Loujain, about it. “She’s the one who really challenged our parents and questioned their decision. In the end, they just accepted (the boxing classes) because her arguments were so persuasive – you couldn’t counter her.” Lina speaks with pride when talking about Loujain, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activists, who even from a young age was always questioning injustices. “She’s my confidante, she never judges anyone, and she’s so brave. She’s the first person I go to when I have anything to ask.”

But Lina hasn’t been able to speak to her sister for almost three years. In May 2018, state security broke into their family home in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and took Loujain from her room. “She wasn’t even dressed. They just covered her,” says Lina, adding that they didn’t give any information to her parents – not even a warrant for arrest. Big black cars surrounded their house. “My parents weren’t even sure it was the state security. They were really scared.”

Loujain, 31, was arrested for her activism. Since 2013, she has doggedly campaigned against the country’s ban on women driving, filming videos of herself behind the wheel. In one from 2014, she’s wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses, and explains in softly spoken Arabic that she’s attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where she holds a valid driver’s licence. “Let’s see what happens,” she says defiantly, smiling at the camera. This is typical of Loujain: she is fearless in her pursuit of gender equality. She was arrested at the border and incarcerated for 73 days. After this short stint in a women’s detention facility, she became even more determined to improve women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, turning her attention to the male guardianship system, which previously effectively classed all Saudi women as legal minors who needed permission from a male guardian to do things such as travel, marry, and work. In July 2016, Loujain and other activists organised a campaign calling for an end to the male guardianship system. Their petition, which they sent to King Salman, garnered more than 14,000 signatures.

International pressure began to build on the absolute monarchy to give greater freedom to women. On June 24, 2018 – a few weeks after Loujain’s arrest – the ban on women driving was officially lifted. Just over a year later, in August 2019, the male guardianship system was (supposedly) relaxed. But Loujain and others who campaigned for an end to these laws still languish in prison.

“Women are still as oppressed, and what’s even worse is that nobody knows where the red lines are now in Saudi Arabia” – Lina al-Hathloul

Meanwhile, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has been showered with praise for steering the country in this progressive direction, which Lina says is “all a farce, all only PR”. She explains: “All the reforms are always countered by new laws.” For example, women are now allowed to travel without the consent of a male guardian, but “if the male guardian doesn’t want his daughter or his wife to travel, then he can use the disobedience or disappearance law, which basically gives him the right to call the police and say that the woman under his guardianship is disobeying him”. The religious police have also been removed, but there’s the new public decency law, which means “a policeman can arrest a woman based on his own morals, his own values, and what he considers as not being decent”. Lina says a lot of women have been arrested for not being sufficiently covered: “Women are still as oppressed, and what’s even worse is that nobody knows where the red lines are now in Saudi Arabia.”

Loujain is no stranger to a prison cell. She has been arrested several times before and usually held for only a couple of hours. Lina says she was in Brussels, about to take her exams, when she heard about her sister’s arrest in May 2018, and assumed Loujain would be released within a few hours, like previous times. “Before her arrest, she was on a travel ban and she’d stopped using social media, as requested by the government (two months earlier, Saudi agents had kidnapped her from the UAE where she had been studying and taken her by private jet back to Riyadh, where they detained her for two nights) – she wasn’t doing anything actually, even her activism had slowed down.” But, as Lina would later realise, this detainment was different. “It was worse than anything she’d ever endured.”

Loujain was held incommunicado for three weeks in Dhahban Central Prison, a maximum-security prison outside of Jeddah (she is now in Al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh), without any contact with her parents. After that, from June to August 2018, she was allowed to call them – Lina says that during the calls she would reassure them that everything was fine. In August 2018, her parents were finally allowed to visit her. “My mum said that she could not recognise her daughter; she wasn’t the strong, shining Loujain that she knew. She was very weak, and was speaking in a very tired voice and shaking a lot,” says Lina. They also noticed red marks all over her body. It was around this time that reports started surfacing about torture being used against prisoners in the Ritz-Carlton. In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul, following orders from the highest levels of government. Loujain’s parents were convinced that she was being tortured. During their next visit, they asked her about it.

“She told them everything,” says Lina. “She said that during the months when they weren’t allowed to see her, she was put in a torture centre and was being electrocuted, that some men would also sexually harass her while electrocuting her, putting the electrocution thing in sensitive places and laughing at her. They would flog her, waterboard her, sexually abuse her, deprive her of sleep. Sometimes she would wake up at night with men surrounding her.” She says her sister named one of the men who supervised her torture. “It was MBS’s right-hand man, Saud al-Qahtani.” He also threatened to rape Loujain and chop her body up and throw it in the sewage system. He is the same man who played a leading role in the Khashoggi murder, according to Turkish intelligence.

“There are so many ways in which they’re trying to torture Loujain without leaving any traces” – Lina al-Hathloul

The Saudi government deny the allegations of torture. According to her family, in August last year Loujain rejected a proposal to secure her release in exchange for a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody. She has also been on two hunger strikes to demand contact with her family – she had to abandon the latest one when her jailers kept waking her up every two hours – and has faced eight months of solitary confinement. “There are so many ways in which they’re trying to torture her without leaving any traces,” says Lina.

In December last year, Loujain was sentenced to five years and eight months in jail after being found guilty of spying with foreign parties and conspiring against the kingdom. The sentence has been partially suspended by two years and ten months to take into consideration the time she has already spent in prison, which means she could be out as soon as February. But Lina is not convinced. “We do not believe anything the Saudi government tells us – we have no trust in the Saudi judicial system, so I don’t think she will be released in February,” she says, adding that she is worried her sister won’t be released even when her sentence has finished. “We’ve seen this with other campaigners, we’ve seen this with other clerics, we’ve seen this with other reformers; when their sentences are finished, they don’t even release them.”

Loujain has appealed against the sentence, issued by the Specialised Criminal Court, or terrorist court, which is notorious for muzzling critical voices. “We are disappointed that they consider her activism as terrorism,” says Lina, explaining that they accused her sister of being in contact with foreign journalists, participating in international conferences to speak about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, and also with being in contact with foreign diplomats – including the UK, the EU, and the Netherlands. The only evidence the public prosecutor gave Loujain is “literally her tweets about the male guardianship system, her tweets encouraging women to drive in Saudi Arabia, and extracts from her conferences at the UN”. 

“We do not believe anything the Saudi government tells us – we have no trust in the Saudi judicial system, so I don’t think she will be released in February” – Lina al-Hathloul

Several countries publicly condemned Loujain’s sentencing in December, including Germany, France, the US, and Canada. The UK, however, has remained silent, despite one of the charges being that Loujain was in contact with UK diplomats. Lina says it is the UK’s “duty to defend my sister and to publicly condemn any unjust sentence”, adding: “They cannot accept that their ally Saudi Arabia considers the UK an enemy, and that being in contact with the UK is a crime.” She is hopeful that the new US president, Joe Biden, will put pressure on the Saudi government to release Loujain. Biden has previously called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, and says he will end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. “It’s not a secret that Saudi Arabia’s government was personally tied to the Trump administration,” says Lina. “Trump himself said that he had saved MBS from the crimes he has committed.”

The last time that Lina physically saw Loujain was in December 2017. What does she miss most about her? “I miss waking up in the morning with her jokes on our WhatsApp group. I miss her joyfulness. She is our sunshine – she gives us hope.” For now, Lina, along with two of her other siblings who live outside Saudi Arabia, continue to speak out for their sister, despite the risks to their own safety. “Of course we are worried, because we know the Saudi government can reach anyone, even those abroad. But being afraid means we stop doing what we are doing, and that would be another voice silenced.”