Translated from daily De Standaard in Belgium, 27 July 2019:
Lina al-Hathloul, sister of imprisoned Saudi activist
“After the torture, silence was no longer an option”
For unclear reasons, activist Loujain al-Hathloul (29) has been in a Saudi cell for over a year, where she was tortured. Her sister Lina (24) lives in Brussels. “She has been electrocuted, beaten and subjected to waterboarding“, she says. Women can now drive cars in Saudi Arabia,
but they also have to keep their mouths shut.
By Jorn De Cock
Brussels: “There is no news”, says Lina al-Hathloul in a flex office in Brussels, where she recently started working for a starting company that works for more solar energy. She has lived in Brussels for seven years, studied law and wants to stay there. But for more than a year, her attention has been constantly diverted to her birthplace, Saudi Arabia, where her sister Loujain is one of the best-known prisoners.
On May 15, 2018, Loujain was brutally taken out of her house at night. She disappeared for weeks without an official statement. The unresolved paradox of that night is that Loujain al-Hathloul became best known for her campaigns against the Saudi driving ban for women. Shortly after her arrest, that driving ban was lifted.
Why did the Saudi regime, which supposedly is modernizing, feel it was necessary to put Loujain and ten other activists in jail just then? In the pro-regime Saudi media, the female activists – some of them professors and grandmothers, others in their twenties such as Loujain – were called ‘traitors’. They were accused of undermining the “security, stability and national unity of the kingdom”.
This spring, a trial finally followed – behind closed doors – but there too, nothing seems to have moved since April. Seven female activists have now been released conditionally, but not Loujain. “She herself has no idea where it’s going”, says sister Lina. “As a survival strategy, she therefore assumes that she will be imprisoned indefinitely.”
The trial initially seemed an elegant solution for the Saudi royal family to finally close that nasty issue. But it turned out differently.
Lina al-Hathloul: “Since April, there has been no further session and nothing has been announced. My sister can now call my family every Sunday. She is in solitary confinement, reading books, but little can be said about this in the telephone conversations. It is mainly we who talk – sometimes via a telephone that my parents hold on to their telephone in Riyadh – so that she hears us.”
How did your sister become an activist?
“She studied in Canada. She was not only an enthusiastic driver there – which she was not allowed to do in Saudi Arabia at the time – but she also became active on the Kik app, as one of the first Saudis. On that app you see a face, a full name, and you can post comments and short videos – which she began to do diligently about everything that happened in Saudi Arabia. ”
“When she returned to the Middle East, she started working in the United Arab Emirates and began campaigning against the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia. One day she was driving home from the airport by car. My father sat next to her and filmed her. When she then drove again, she was stopped and had to go into jail for 73 days. At that time, she realized that it was not about a driving ban for women, but about the entire system of male custody in Saudi Arabia. ”
“Together with other activists, she started a petition addressed to King Salman. About which she was arrested again in 2017. In February 2018 there was an international conference against discrimination against women in Switzerland, where an official delegation from Saudi Arabia was invited. Loujain also went to sit in the audience and commented on what the delegation said via Twitter. That made them pretty angry.”
“A month later, Loujain was kidnapped in the Emirates: local state security surrounded her car, blindfolded her, and put her on a plane to Saudi Arabia. Then she was in jail for another day, without a reason being given. And last year, on May 15, they suddenly invaded our house in Saudi Arabia overnight and was taken away. For a while we didn’t get any news. After that she was allowed to call occasionally, but there was clearly someone standing next to her. In August my parents were finally allowed to visit her. They noticed that she could barely walk, had red marks on her neck and could not even hold a pen. She didn’t talk about it. It was only at a subsequent visit in September that she gradually started talking.”
What she revealed then went very far.
“Loujain has started telling our parents more month after month. How she was electrocuted, beaten, subjected to waterboarding (sham drowning, ed.), sexual harassment, threat of execution. There is nothing they haven’t done to her.”
On the one hand, the young crown prince Mohamed bin Salman preaches a new era in Saudi Arabia, with “moderate Islam”, entertainment for a mixed audience and the lifting of the driving ban for women. But on the other hand, those who worked for that were imprisoned. What did the royal family want to show?
(carefully): “Their power has been abused. In a previous arrest at the airport, Saud Qahtani (a former close associate of Crown Prince MBS who is also mentioned in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, ed.) came to her and asked her if she would rather be in jail for twenty years or wanted to get the death penalty. While the torture was going on, she was laughed at and spit on her.”
“In the beginning I thought they just wanted to keep control of the story about the lifting of the driving ban. They did not want anyone to have an opinion about it. So I thought they would release my sister after a month or two. When the months passed, the torture followed, followed by a trial without any transparency.”
A lot of things suddenly surfaced last fall, when journalist Khashoggi was brutally murdered and your sister’s testimonies came. International pressure seemed to be increasing. Did it work out?
“There was more talk about atrocities at the time. The US American senator Marco Rubio
of President Donald Trump’s own party
said Saudi Arabia had gone “full gangster”. Some realized that they might have to answer, that they could not just do everything. Maybe some pressure came, but nothing happened after that. I note that my sister and others are still in jail. ”
You talk fairly openly about your sister’s situation, the families of other prisoners usually don’t. Why did your family start talking?
“The moment we knew about the torture, silence was no longer an option. That is not a simple decision: you break your head about the best risk management. What can be the consequences for her if we talk or not? But if she is tortured, nothing is worse than being silent.”
“She is now in solitary confinement again, but we no longer hear about other tortures. My family would therefore prefer to keep the silence. I can’t do that myself. The last year has made me more rebellious. (smiles) I have become many years older in that one year.”
Your sister also has the support of your parents. That is already an advantage.
“My parents are religious and support the Saudi royal family, but they also have a critical mind. My father, eg, would not simply welcome complete freedom of religion, but at the same time he does not understand why women should be second-class citizens, not allowed to work or to drive a car. My parents are certainly not liberal by European standards, but my brother and sisters have been allowed to study abroad, just like me. Some of us are still there (laughs).”
Your sister also receives international support: she is an honorary citizen of Paris and received an American PEN Award and an honorary doctorate in Louvain-la-Neuve. Meanwhile, the most open pressure comes from the world of entertainment. American actors such as Alec Baldwin plead for her release, singer Nicki Minaj has just cancelled a concert in Saudi Arabia. And that while Saudi Arabia wants to focus more on culture and entertainment. …
Lina: But concerts have nothing to do with fundamental human rights. …
Saudi Arabia was never a real police state. People knew that there were certain “red lines”, but they knew them. Now it seems that everything has become a red line.”
Suppose your sister would be released tomorrow, what would happen to her?
“If that would happen, then I fear she will be forced to remain silent until she would be forgotten.”