There could hardly be a stronger person, says her brother Walid. Yet “she cried when the verdict was read, because she was innocent, and she was being labeled a terrorist.” This was on December 28. Immediately, “she wanted to appeal the verdict, even though we don’t have much hope in the Saudi judicial system.”
We are speaking of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the most prominent political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. She was judged guilty in a notorious “special court,” ostensibly reserved for terrorists and other dangerous characters. She was sentenced to five years and eight months.
What did she do? She campaigned for human rights, and, specifically, women’s rights: the right to live independently; the right to have legal recourse in the case of domestic abuse; the right to drive a car.
She knew the risks she was taking in campaigning for these simple rights. She had no “need” to do it, because she was living a perfectly fine life as it was. But she felt compelled to do it. According to her family, and others who know her, she has a strong sense of right and wrong, and a strong sense of patriotism. In short, she wanted her country to be freer and more just.
Many other Saudis feel just as she does. Some of them are in prison, as she is. One of these is Raif Badawi, who was imprisoned in 2012. He was also lashed. Badawi’s crime was to blog for the basics — meaning, freedom, democracy, human rights. These “basics” seem like faraway dreams to a great many around the world.
Since June 2017, the boss in Saudi Arabia has been the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He is known as a liberal reformer, with some justification. Yet the world can be forgiven if it does not quite see him that way. In October 2018, Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident and journalist. They did it in Istanbul. They did it in spectacular fashion. Then there are the political prisoners, such as the two we have named.
The cruelty — indeed, sadism — of the Saudi regime is plain.
Possibly, Loujain al-Hathloul will be released in a matter of months. The judge suspended two years and ten months of her sentence, and gave her credit for the time she has already spent in prison. Her family is hoping for the best, although dictatorships are good at dashing hopes.
Loujain is 31 years old, born in July 1989. Her name means “pearl,” and her brother Walid says, “That’s what she is to our family.” Their father is an engineer, educated at the University of Michigan; their mother is a retired schoolteacher. There are six siblings altogether: two brothers, four sisters. Loujain is the fourth child in that lineup.
Three of the siblings live abroad, and have campaigned mightily for Loujain. The rest of the family is in Saudi Arabia, and barred from leaving the country. There is little they can do of a public nature. Freedom of speech is not recognized by the Saudi government.
“It does not surprise me that Loujain became an activist,” says Walid. As a girl, she cared a lot about people and questioned injustices around her: in particular, inequality between boys and girls, and men and women. She was always asking questions that weren’t quite safe to ask.
Walid provides an example of her kindness and selflessness. He managed to talk to her, by phone, in June 2018. Later, the family learned that this was a dark, dark time for her in prison. “The moment I get out,” she said to Walid, “I’m going to find you a woman to marry.” Walid answered, “Loujain, this is no time to talk about romance. Let’s focus on getting you out.” No, said Loujain, “we have to talk about getting you settled down.”
“This touched my heart,” says Walid.
He and Loujain went to “a typical high school in Riyadh,” he says. Eventually, Loujain went to a university far away: the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She studied French literature.
An exceptional young Saudi herself, she married another such person in 2014. He is Fahad al-Butairi, an actor, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian. Indeed, he was one of the very first stand-up comedians in Saudi Arabia. He got his start in this line of work while a student at the University of Texas in Austin.
Fahad and Loujain became widely known in Saudi Arabia, especially inspiring the young.
In December 2014, Loujain did something daring. She had obtained a driver’s license from the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as is Saudi Arabia. One of the rules of the GCC says, if you have a driver’s license from one country, it is valid in another country. Testing this, Loujain tried to drive from the UAE into Saudi Arabia. She was arrested by Saudi agents at the border — and imprisoned for 73 days.
During this imprisonment, no harm came to her. To put it bluntly: She was not tortured.
Jump to 2018. Loujain was a graduate student in the UAE, studying for a master’s in sociology on the Abu Dhabi campus of the Sorbonne. On March 13, she was driving on a highway when she was pulled over and, essentially, kidnapped. Saudi agents put her on a private jet and transported her back to her home country. She was detained for two nights, released on the 15th.
When they released her, they put her on a travel ban and gave her a warning: Stay absolutely quiet.
In this same period, Fahad, too, was kidnapped. He had been in Jordan, shooting a film. According to the best reports obtainable, Saudi agents handcuffed and blindfolded him, and put him on a plane back home.
On the 15th of May — two months after Loujain’s (most recent) release — something shocking happened: They arrested her again, coming to her home to seize her. The same day, they arrested other women’s-rights activists, including Eman al-Nafjan, Aisha al-Mana, and Aziza al-Yousef. Each one of them has a story to tell, each one of them merits an article — or a book — of her own.
The timing of these arrests was curious. The next month, Saudi women were scheduled to get the right to drive. Why crack down on the activists at this juncture?
Because, goes the consensus, the government wanted to show who was in charge. Driving was a favor to be granted by the king and his crown prince to their subjects. It was not a right to be demanded by those subjects, as if they were citizens. Moreover, activists, or would-be activists, should think twice before asking for any more rights.
Loujain’s parents were not allowed to visit her until August, three months after her arrest. In January 2019, Loujain’s sister Alia wrote the following, in an article published in the New York Times:
My parents saw that she was shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip, to walk or sit normally. My strong, resilient sister blamed it on the air-conditioning and tried to assure my parents that she would be fine.
In the autumn of 2018, human-rights organizations started to report that prisoners were being tortured, with unusual ferocity, in Saudi Arabia. These included women prisoners — something relatively new, and considered at odds with Saudi ethics.
Visiting her in December, Loujain’s parents confronted her on the question of torture. Tearfully, she confessed. She had been trying to spare them the information.
Writes Alia al-Hathloul,
She said she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder. My parents then saw that her thighs were blackened by bruises.
Perhaps we can have another paragraph on this horrible subject:
Saud al-Qahtani, a top royal adviser, was present several times when Loujain was tortured, she said. Sometimes Mr. Qahtani laughed at her, sometimes he threatened to rape and kill her and throw her body into the sewage system. Along with six of his men, she said, Mr. Qahtani tortured her all night during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. He forced Loujain to eat with them, even after sunrise. She asked them if they would keep eating all day during Ramadan. One of his men answered, “No one is above us, not even God.”
In March 2019, ten months after her arrest, Loujain al-Hathloul was granted a trial — though the procedure was not worthy of the name. At this point, the case was in a regular criminal court, not the “special court” that would come later.
The charges against Loujain were along these lines: contacting human-rights organizations; contacting foreign journalists; contacting foreign diplomats; contacting Saudi activists abroad; and applying for a job at the United Nations. Especially galling to the authorities, apparently, was the fact that Loujain had freely discussed her (initial) prison experience. This put the kingdom in an unflattering light.
Loujain’s trial was postponed after about a month, with no reason given.
At some point in 2018, there was a divorce between Loujain and Fahad. This is the one subject that her family is reluctant to discuss now, for it is both very painful and very personal. The assumption of observers is this: Saudi authorities pressured Fahad to divorce Loujain, whom they wanted to make a national pariah and hate figure.
During her imprisonment, Loujain has received significant international recognition. There is nothing a political prisoner wants more than to be remembered; there is nothing a dictatorship wants more than that the prisoner be forgotten.
PEN America gave Loujain and two other female prisoners in Saudi Arabia — Eman al-Nafjan and Nouf Abdulaziz — a free-expression award. At the relevant gala, the actor Alec Baldwin and his wife, Hilaria, posed for pictures. They held up signs with the prisoners’ names on them. This may seem silly — a crumb — but such gestures mean a lot to political prisoners and their families.
Time magazine named Loujain one of the 100 most influential people of 2019.
At the U.N. Human Rights Council, 36 countries called on the Saudi government — which then belonged to that council — to release prisoners such as Loujain. Among the countries doing so were France, Germany, and Britain. The European Parliament has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to let the prisoners go.
From the executive branch of the U.S. government, there has been little. From the U.S. Congress, there have been resolutions, in favor of the prisoners: one offered in the House by Lois Frankel, a Florida Democrat; one offered in the Senate by Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.
Some high-placed Americans are puzzled by the Saudi government’s insistence on keeping the activists jailed. It is hurting the government’s reputation around the world. What harm would it have done to let the prisoners go when COVID-19 struck? The pandemic would have been a nice, face-saving excuse for the regime. But the regime has not budged.
Quite possibly — to say it again — they want to keep the prisoners as object lessons, warning off others from dissent.
For four months in 2020 — April to August — Loujain al-Hathloul was denied visits and phone calls from her family. In response to this, she did what political prisoners have long done, have long resorted to: She went on hunger strike, for six days. She got a visit.
Later, she was again denied regular contact. This time, she went on hunger strike for two weeks. The authorities harassed her unbearably — waking her up every two hours, for example — and she broke off her strike.
Saudi Arabia was scheduled to host the G-20 summit on November 21 and 22. Maybe the government would spring Loujain beforehand, as a goodwill gesture? Maybe the summit would be an opportunity for the prisoners’ supporters to showcase their plights? In the end, the summit was merely virtual — an online event — attracting little attention.
November 25 was an important day in the Loujain al-Hathloul case. It was transferred from the criminal court to that “special court,” for terrorists et al. The government was keen to portray Loujain as a threat to national security. This is how Mohammed bin Salman has tried to paint his female prisoners, the rights activists.
Interviewed by reporters from Bloomberg in October 2018, he said that the arrests of the activists had nothing to do with their activism or advocacy. Instead, they were spies, in cahoots with foreign intelligence services. “We have some of them with videos,” he said. “We can show it to you. Tomorrow we will show you the videos.”
The videos never materialized — even manufactured. It’s all a lie, of course.
Foreign diplomats were not allowed to attend Loujain’s trial. Neither were foreign journalists. From local media, Walid al-Hathloul, abroad, found out about the verdict before Loujain did.
Their sister Lina noted, with great disgust, that Loujain was being punished for advocating some of the very reforms that the Saudi government now boasts of: the right of women to drive; the loosening of “male guardianship.” So, why have they done this to Loujain and the others? Because they can. To show them who’s boss.
What a cruel and depraved regime, the kind of regime that pocks the world.