Loujain al-Hathloul has been held in solitary confinement and faced abuse, including electric shocks, flogging and threats of sexual violence. The Saudi government has resisted calls from human rights groups and lawmakers from around the world to release Loujain and the other jailed activists.
It’s been a year since women’s right activist Loujain al-Hathloul was detained and jailed in Saudi Arabia for leading a movement to lift the kingdom’s ban on female drivers and overhaul its male “guardianship” system. Despite international outcry, she’s been imprisoned ever since. During that time, her family says, she’s been held in solitary confinement and faced abuse, including electric shocks, flogging and threats of sexual violence. The Saudi government has resisted calls from human rights groups and lawmakers from around the world to release Loujain and the other jailed activists.
Saud al-Qahtani, the infamous former adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited Hathloul in detention to oversee her torture, according to Walid, her brother.
“He sat in on one of the sessions. He told her: ‘I’ll kill you, cut you into pieces, throw you in the sewer system. But before that, I’ll rape you,’” Walid said.
Hathloul remains more concerned about the fate of women outside the prison walls than herself, said her brother in a report by The Guardian.
“Even when she was in jail, although she didn’t witness women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, she kept asking me how women there were feeling, whether they were enjoying their right to drive,” Walid said. “She was thinking about them even though she was in jail, and it wasn’t a time to think about others.
It’s not hard to guess why Hathloul is still behind bars. Her family, including brother Walid and sister Lina, have been outspoken on her behalf, including about the torture she says she endured: waterboarding, beatings, electric shocks and sexual harassment.
“They are saying, because you guys are speaking out, Loujain is not going to be released,” says Walid al-Hathloul. It’s a way of ensuring that other families remain silent about arrests and mistreatment of activists.
Thanks to such tactics, Saudi activists and human rights groups have been unable to determine how many political detentions have occurred since MBS came to power.
Including religious opponents of the regime and members of the royal family, the total could number in the thousands, says Safa al-Ahmad, a filmmaker who has documented Saudi repression in an article by The Washington Post.
According to accounts shared by her siblings, Loujain was kidnapped from the streets of Dubai by government officials, forced into an airplane and flown back to Saudi Arabia against her will. There she was held, first in an apartment in a secret location, later in a state prison.
“These are the things my brave, resilient sister has endured in prison,” Lina recently told an audience at the Women in the World’s New York summit. “She has been beaten until her thighs were black with bruises, subject to whippings and waterboarding, tormented with electric shocks, threatened with rape and murder.”
The refusal of her brothers and sisters to keep Loujain’s plight secret, as they had been instructed, make uncomfortable publicity for a nation working on an international media makeover.
“In the past year, Saudi Arabia has been rightfully proud of the leaps forward it has made in terms of women’s liberties; the first female ambassador has been appointed, women’s sport has lost its stigma and the infamous female driving ban has fallen. But what does all this mean, if the very people who campaigned peacefully for such rights are denied their own freedom?” Nicola Sutcliff, an international journalist, wrote.
There has been relief for some in the past few weeks; approximately seven of the jailed activists have been released ‘temporarily’ pending the results of their ongoing trials. But of Loujain in such headlines, there has been no sign.
The date of her last hearing was cancelled abruptly without explanation. Since then, there have been no updates on her case, and no news of when proceedings might be resumed.
Loujain has recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. At the time of her arrest she was training to work as a sociologist, “In the hope of taking part in the change that is happening in my country as a researcher and a consultant,” she told Sutcliff.