Loujain al-Hathloul wins prestigious human rights award

Summary: Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul awarded the 2020 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award. Her sister Lina discusses her case, the impact on their family and women’s rights in the Kingdom.

Yesterday, Loujain al-Hathloul the Saudi women’s rights activist was awarded the 2020 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Award by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In December 2020, she was sentenced to five years and eight months in jail after being convicted on charges of conspiring against the kingdom and spying on behalf of “foreign parties.”  Loujain had been held since May 2018 and was released 10 February this year under strict conditions that include a travel ban and an interdiction on speaking to the media.

On 22 January 2021, before Loujain’s release, Arab Digest spoke with her sister Lina who lives outside the kingdom. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. The full podcast is here.

Loujain was sentenced on the 28th of December last year, to nearly six years. What do you make of the charges on which she was convicted?

When she got arrested at first, she didn’t have any official charges. And the only thing that we knew was what the Saudi newspapers were saying, that she was a spy, a foreign agent trying to destabilize the country. And for 10 months she didn’t have any official charges. MBS in an interview (with Bloomberg’s Stephanie Flanders) in 2018 was saying that she’s a spy and a foreign agent and that he had evidence of that and that he had videos that he could show the day after the interview. And then after 10 months, the court called Loujain and gave her the charges finally.

And Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, that video that he promised, never arrived did it?

The video that he promised never arrived and even worse than this… when you see the evidence the public prosecutor gives, it’s really her tweets, where she explicitly complains about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, there are recordings of her talking about the women’s rights situation in Saudi Arabia at international conferences. And that’s the evidence they gave. And they’re explicitly saying black and white, that these are evidence of being a terrorist.

Tell us a little bit about Loujain, the sort of person she is.

I mean, Loujain before being an activist, she’s my sister. She’s my best friend. She’s my confidante, and she’s really a ray of sunshine for the family. She’s always the one who cheers everyone up. We’re so strong because she’s still strong behind bars and we get our strength from her strength and she’s a very genuine person. She’s selfless and she fights for what she believes in.

She’s been a campaigner for some time, but I’m wondering if we go back to, I believe it was December 2014 when she was first arrested, were you surprised then when she took on her campaign for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia?

I must say I was quite young at that time. But honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all. You know, she always been someone who questions everything, even in the family. She questioned the family’s rules. Every time I wasn’t allowed to do something, she would be the one asking my parents why. For example, I’ve always wanted to do boxing in Saudi Arabia, and I couldn’t because I was a girl. That’s what my parents would say. And she questioned my parents and said, what does it mean to be a girl? And what does it change? And at the end, they allowed me because they didn’t have any rational answers to her questions. And you know, she’s always been someone who questions everything. She’s not scared to question things. And she’s a pioneer in everything she does. I wasn’t surprised that she got arrested.  I was proud of her.

Proud because of the courage, because of the determination to question authority and to fight for what’s right?

Absolutely. I mean, especially given that in Saudi Arabia, women didn’t really have an identity before Loujain, I would say. Women who wanted to make change would usually do it without giving their names publicly, without showing their faces. And she was really one of the first Saudi women who would say, ‘I’m a woman, I can say it, I can show it and I will use the privilege I have of having a family that’s not too oppressive to make this change’.

Can you tell me a little bit about the impact on her, but also on you and your family?

When she got arrested they put the whole family on a travel ban. So they cannot leave Saudi Arabia. And then when they started their defamation campaign my parents really felt isolated in Saudi Arabia, because it was really taboo to speak about Loujain, to speak to the family of Loujain. So my parents, they live in an everyday fear.  (Loujain’s parents were allowed to see her in the summer of 2018 but it was only after several months of visits that she told them of being tortured) … After the Khashoggi murder, and the Ritz Carlton cases, we read reports about torture. So they talked during the November visit, or end of October, they told Loujain, ‘Look, we have read reports regarding the torture in some unofficial prisons’ because Loujain was in the unofficial prison before the official visits. And after this, she collapsed in tears. And she told them that her shaking was because of electrocution during these months in the unofficial prison, that she was being flogged, sexually abused, waterboarded, and that she was put in an unofficial prison that was a torture centre in the basement of what she called a palace, or sometimes a hotel or a private house. And visit after visit she started giving more details. And at some point, she even told my parents that one of the people who was there with the torture team was (Saud) al-Qahtani who is or was, we don’t really know, MBS’s righthand man. So the government is directly involved in my sister’s torture. And this was so scary for us because we felt really vulnerable and little to have Saudi Arabia’s government being involved in our own sister’s torture. We felt like we couldn’t even do something about it. Because you know, if we say anything, then maybe her fate would be (what was) Khashoggi’s fate. We didn’t know if we should talk about it. And in the end, we decided to talk because it’s either we stay silent and she could be killed or we take the risk of speaking up and making it public, to raise awareness and to start pressuring the Saudi government for her release.

Women have made progress in the kingdom under Mohammed bin Salman and his Vision 2030. But still, the authorities have continued to persecute Loujain and other activists. Why do you think that is?

My first question is, what kind of progress has been made in Saudi Arabia regarding a woman’s rights? To be honest, I will say that the only true and genuine reform is women driving and that’s because Saudi men and women have been campaigning for it for years, and with all the pressure, the majority of the Saudi people agreeing that it’s something that should be done, the government had to do it. And MBS only took the credit for all the activism these people have made during all these years. And now he’s imprisoned them also. But what we see in Western media regarding the progress is always something that is not deeply researched I would say; for example they’ve applauded the decision allowing women to travel without the consent of their male guardian. But they don’t dig deeply enough because, okay, now, women don’t have to have the consent to travel. But the male guardian can still file a complaint to the police if his daughter or wife travels without his consent because he can say based on the disobedience law, that she was disobedient to him or she’s disappeared. So all the freedoms that have been given are always countered with a new law that allows the male guardian to veto these freedoms. It is having two Saudi Arabias, having new laws for the West, for the Western media to talk about, but at the same time countering them with new laws inside of the country that women suffer from. So honestly all the reforms that have been made are always countered, so that women don’t get their full freedoms.

For Loujain, for you, and your family, what is justice for your sister?

For my sister justice is unconditional released, because now they said that they might release her in February but with a travel ban of five years, and with a probation of three years. So unconditional release is the only thing that can bring justice to my sister, and  a real investigation regarding her torture. And without that, and without Saud al-Qahtani and everyone who has been involved in her illegal arrest and torture (being brought to trial), there won’t be justice. So we need her to be unconditionally released and for the people who tortured her to be sentenced.

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