Loujain al-Hathloul | The activist behind bars

The rights champion has been jailed for ‘trying to undermine national security’

Updated - January 03, 2021 01:17 pm IST

Published - January 02, 2021 10:23 pm IST

My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist, said Lina al-Hathloul, sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi human rights activist who was sentenced to prison by an anti-terrorism court on Monday. “To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy,” she said in a statement, referring to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by his initials.

Ms. Loujain, a prominent advocate for women’s rights in the conservative kingdom, was arrested in May 2018 along with others who campaigned for lifting a ban on women driving, a few weeks before the ban was actually lifted. She was later charged for contacting organisations and diplomats that are hostile to Saudi Arabia. The arrest had gained international attention with rights groups asking the Saudi authorities to release her. But the kingdom did not relent. Ms. Loujain’s case was transferred to an anti-terrorism court in November last year, and on Monday, the judge found her guilty of various charges including trying to harm Saudi Arabia’s national security and advance foreign agenda.

Ms. Loujain, 31, had been a relentless presence in Saudi Arabia’s limited public sphere until her arrest in 2018. Before MBS lifted the ban, Saudi Arabia was the only country that had banned women from driving. And many women like Ms. Loujain had raised voices against this state-driven discrimination. She was arrested for the first time in 2014 December while trying to drive to Saudi Arabia from the UAE. She was detained for over 70 days. But the detention did not deter Ms. Loujain, a University of British Columbia graduate, from continuing with her activism. In 2015, when Saudi women were allowed to vote and stand in elections at the municipal level for the first time, Ms. Loujain wanted to contest. But the authorities barred her. “I’ve been eliminated as a candidate for the municipal elections. I will be filing my objection via the appropriate channels,” she tweeted then.

Guardianship system

A year later, Ms. Loujain, along with 14,000 others, signed a petition to King Salman, demanding the male guardianship system be abolished. Under Saudi law, all women were required to have a male guardian. The system gave women’s fathers, husbands, brothers or uncles the final say on their life plans. As part of the reforms initiated by the Crown Prince, the guardianship laws were partially amended in 2019, excluding women over 21 years old from the guardian system. The authorities, however, did not spare those who campaigned for abolishing the system. In 2017, a year after the petition was submitted to the King, Ms. Loujain was arrested again.

After that, Ms. Loujain moved to the UAE and joined Sorbonne University’s Abu Dhabi campus for a master's degree programme in applied sociological research. But things didn’t go ahead as she planned. In March 2018, she was stopped by security officials while driving in Abu Dhabi.

They forcibly put her on a plane and transferred her to a prison in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, according to an account by Alia al-Hathloul, another sister of Ms. Loujain. She was released after a few days but barred from travelling abroad and warned against using social media. In May, she was formally arrested and ever since she has been in prison.

Ms. Alia, who is living in Brussels, Belgium, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times in January 2019, alleging that her sister was tortured in prison. When her parents visited Ms. Loujain in Jeddah’s Dhahban prison in August 2018, she was “shaking uncontrollably, unable to hold her grip”. In December, she told her parents that she was tortured between May and August — she had been put in “solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder” — according to Ms. Alia. Saud bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, a former top Royal Court adviser and a close aide of MBS, was present when Ms. Loujain was tortured. Al-Qahtani was dismissed from the court in late 2018 after the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate.

The imprisonment, trial and allegations of torture of one of the most famous activists in the Kingdom, who was one of TIME magazine’s ‘100 most influential people’ in 2019, has heaped pressure on Crown Prince MBS, who is promoted by the kingdom as a man of reforms. But the Saudi authorities are also wary of dissent, which could breed more dissent.

The judge who sentenced Ms. Loujain to five years and eight months, has suspended two years and 10 months of the sentence, which means, given the time she has already spent in prison, she could be released in a few months. But freedom comes with riders. she would be placed on probation for three years and barred from travelling abroad for five years, says her family.

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