Sister of Saudi women’s rights activist fears she is being tortured, as she hasn’t been heard from in months

Maya Oppenheim
·5-min read

The sister of a prominent jailed Saudi women’s rights campaigner has raised fears the activist is being tortured in prison, as she has not heard from her in two months.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned to win Saudi women the right to drive and was arrested several times for breaking the newly overturned driving ban, has allegedly been previously tortured in jail.

The Nobel prize-nominated campaigner, who turned 31 at the end of last month, was arrested in May 2018 alongside 10 other women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

Lina al-Hathloul, her younger sister who lives in Brussels, has now told The Independent the family have not heard from Loujain for 61 days.

Loujain’s 25-year-old sister raised concerns about her condition and safety and said it subsequently emerged the last time the family stopped hearing from her back in 2018 that she was being tortured during that time.

Ms al-Hathloul said: “We are very worried because no calls or visits for two months is very suspicious. The only thing that makes them want to hide her now is the fact she is potentially being tortured. When she was being tortured before, she wasn’t allowed any visits and that is why we have the legitimate right to think she might be being tortured now.

“She was in an unofficial prison when she got arrested and Saud al-Qahtani, a former top adviser of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was there in at least one of her torture sessions. She was sexually harassed, he threatened her with raping her and then murdering her afterwards. During her time in prison, she was also waterboarded, electrocuted, whipped, flogged, and force-fed during the month of Ramadan when she was supposed to be fasting.

“I think about her all the time. It is affecting my whole life. I have nightmares there is news saying she is dead or she has been released but is in a bad condition. I have heard of other prisoners being released and dying with their families two weeks later.

“Everyone who meets Loujain likes her. She is very spontaneous and funny. She never judges anyone. She is a very honest and real person. She sacrifices herself for the people around her. Everything makes me think of Loujain. It is killing me every day. I always tell myself Loujain would have done everything I do and much more to save me. I have to keep on going until she is free.”

Ms al-Hathloul said the Saudi authorities stopped her sister’s trial and visitors from being allowed to see her due to coronavirus but warned the kingdom is now “opening up” after the public health crisis.

Loujain al-Halthoul is one of the 11 women on trial in Saudi Arabia (Reuters)
Loujain al-Halthoul is one of the 11 women on trial in Saudi Arabia (Reuters)

Loujain, who has the right to have contact with her family under Saudi Arabian law, has been blocked from calling her siblings, who live abroad, since March 2019 and is only permitted to ring and be visited by her parents who live in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, her sister said.

Ms al-Hathloul said her parents have been trying to contact the authorities but have had no response — adding that there has been “total silence” despite them having contacted Al-Ha’ir prison, where she was transferred in February, the state security, royal court, and the human rights commission.

She added: “They don’t tell you why she isn’t calling. They don’t reassure you that she is okay. The prison is known for human rights abuses. People disappear in it. They have their own laws there. It is difficult to get accurate information about the prison.

“The thing Saudi Arabia seems to understand is that if no one has news of prisoners then people forget them. It is very tiring for us to campaign for her release when there is nothing new and she has just disappeared.”

Ms al-Hathloul said the only time Loujain has spoken to her parents about the alleged torture she previously suffered was during a prison visit — adding that her sister cannot talk openly about her experiences on the phone otherwise calls will be temporarily banned afterwards.

She said the first time her parents saw her sister after she was allegedly tortured in 2018, they “barely recognised” her and could see from “her eyes” she had been “traumatised” – as well as noticing scars and red marks on her body.

Ms al-Hathloul urged the British government to call for her sister to be released from jail and “at the very least” force the Saudis to allow Loujain to let them know where she is imprisoned and the current state of her mental and physical health.

Lucy Rae, a spokesperson for Grant Liberty, a human rights charity, hit out at the activist’s “enforced silence” and argued Loujain’s “only crime” is campaigning for rights women “in the west take for granted”.

She added: “Her continued imprisonment is a stain on the conscience of the world – and she is not alone. At Grant Liberty, we campaign for more than 150 human rights activists who have been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.

“Many have been tortured, sexually abused, and prevented from communicating with their families. It’s time for governments around the world – including the UK – to take the human rights seriously, and insist that Saudi Arabia ends its barbaric treatment of these prisoners, and they should start by insisting on Loujain’s release.”

Loujain, a University of British Columbia graduate, has previously told her parents she has been beaten, waterboarded and threatened with rape and murder while in prison.

“They saw that her hands were shaking, they saw the signs of torture – the burns and bruises on her legs,” her brother told The Independent in February last year.

He added: “One of the interrogators put his legs on my sister’s legs like you would put your legs on the table. He was smoking and puffing in front of her face.”

Human rights organisations say Loujain was previously placed in solitary confinement and forced to endure abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual harassment.

She is awaiting trial on charges of communicating with foreign bodies hostile to Saudi, recruiting government employees to collect confidential information and delivering financial support to entities overseas who are hostile to the kingdom.

Saudi officials have denied the torture allegations and said they were investigating claims of maltreatment. Government figures have claimed the activists were a threat to national security.

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