Saudi Arabia

After activist’s release, Saudi still needs to fix human rights problem – family

Michelle Abad

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After activist’s release, Saudi still needs to fix human rights problem – family

RELEASED. Women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul chats via video call with her sister Lina al-Hathoul, following her release from a Saudi prison after nearly three years, from her home in Saudi Arabia, February 10, 2021.

Family of Saudi Activist Loujain al-Hathloul/via REUTERS

Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been released from prison, but her family says her alleged torturers in prison haven’t been brought to justice

Just because prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from a Saudi prison after nearly 3 years, her sisters said that it doesn’t change anything yet about the institutional human rights problem in the kingdom.

Loujain was detained in May 2018 over charges UN rights experts called “spurious” under broad counter-terrorism laws.

Her charges, which she only learned when her trial began almost a year after she was detained, included demanding women’s rights like the right to drive and abolishing the male guardianship system. Rights groups and her family say that she was subjected to torture including electric shocks and sexual assault while she was behind bars.

“Just because she was released, it doesn’t mean women’s rights improved…. Maybe it can change some mentalities, but I don’t think it will change anything about Saudi’s institutional human rights problem,” said the activist’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, in a press conference on Thursday, February 11.

On Feburary 10, Loujain was released despite earlier being sentenced to nearly 6 years in prison. The court suspended two years and 10 months of her sentence, most of which had already been served.

However, she still faces a 5-year travel ban ordered by the court. Her family, too, has been subjected to a travel ban they say has no legal basis.

Justice for torture

For some time that Loujain was in prison, her family had no idea that she was being harmed. In her first phone call to the family in June 2018, Loujain told her family she was in a “hotel” when it was actually an unofficial prison.

She would tell them she was fine, but an electrocution device would be latched onto her body, ready to zap her if she complained.

In August 2019, Saudi authorities promised to release Loujain if she signed a statement they drafted that said she would deny all the torture she endured. She refused. In November 2020, a specialized criminal court opened an investigation for the torture.

Saudi authorities denied the accusations. A Saudi appeals court on February 9 dismissed the torture claims, citing a lack of evidence, and ruled that Loujain had the burden of proof. The family believed that the prosecution has always tried to escape the torture investigations.

Still, the sisters said Loujain was still adamant in her demand for justice for the cruelty she endured.

When Loujain was released and got to speak with her sisters on the phone, she asked them how they were, as if no time had passed. The very first thing she did was go to the market and buy ice cream, her sisters said.

“Just hearing her was heartbreaking,” Lina said of the exchange.

Importance of international pressure

Loujain’s other sister Alia al-Hathloul believes that international pressure, especially from the United States, played a part in Loujain’s release. The sisters thanked US President Joe Biden for his support.

“The Saudi situation is tightly connected to what’s happening in the US. So it is a fact that Loujain was imprisoned during the previous administration, and it was really hard to get anything. And it is a fact she was released a few weeks after Biden’s arrival to power. And I have to say, yes, without international pressure, we cannot obtain something in Saudi,” said Alia.

The White House has said Biden, who is taking a firmer line with Saudi Arabia than predecessor Donald Trump, expects Riyadh to improve its human rights record, including releasing political prisoners.

“Releasing her was the right thing to do,” Biden said of Loujain.

Diplomats have said the kingdom has appeared to be acting to address potential friction with the Biden administration.

Alia said that the family hopes, that with the international community supporting the release, it would lead to more releases of political prisoners. “I hope they see that keeping people in prison is good for no one,” she said.

“This raising awareness and international pressure could help gain awareness within the Saudi decision makers [that] it’s not a problem to improve things. It looks like from their [perspective,] when they improve things, they are losing a battle, but it doesn’t make sense. They need to evolve in their mentality as well,” she added.

Support from foreign governments, however, should not be the end of the fight. “We should not be satisfied with the release only. As long as there is a travel ban and her torturers are not sentenced, we shouldn’t be happy,” said Lina.

For now, Loujain is on conditional release. The sisters said it is too early to say if she will be able to continue her activism for now, especially as she cannot use her social media accounts. Loujain’s alleged violations were against the kingdom’s cybercrime and anti-terrorism laws.

If she uses her social media accounts, she would violate her probation, the family said. – with reports from Reuters/

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.