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. We speak with two of Loujain’s siblings, Walid and Lina Al-Hathloul.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Saudi Arabia’s jailing of female activists who have challenged one of the world’s most misogynistic governments. It was a year ago this month, on May 15, 2018, when Saudi authorities arrested Loujain Al-Hathloul and four other women. They were accused of undermining national security. She has been held ever since. Born in 1989, Loujain is an icon of the Saudi women’s rights movement. For years, she led a movement to lift a ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia and to overhaul the kingdom’s male guardianship system. In 2014, she was arrested after attempting to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. A video of her driving went viral.
LOUJAIN AL-HATHLOUL: [translated] Hello. I’m Loujain Al-Hathloul. I’m on the Quwaifa highway. I’m going to try to cross the Saudi borders. I’m driving a car I own, and I have a United Arab Emirates driving license, in an attempt to continue the women driving campaign. Let’s see what happens.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2015, Loujain attempted to run in the first municipal election open to female candidates, but she was subsequently disqualified. Despite multiple arrests, Loujain continued to speak out for women in Saudi Arabia. She was arrested again May 15, 2018, as part of a broader crackdown on female activists and critics of the Saudi government. According to human rights groups, she has since been held in solitary confinement, has been subjected to 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 activists.
Tonight, Loujain Al-Hathloul is being honored with the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award along with two other imprisoned Saudi female activists, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman Al-Nafjan. Loujain was also recently included on the Time 100 list recognizing the world’s most influential people.
We’re joined right now by Loujain’s brother and sister, Walid and Lina Al-Hathloul, who are in New York to accept the PEN award on behalf of their sister.
Lina, thank you very much for joining us. Talk about what [Loujain] is facing in jail, what you understand Loujain is going through right now?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: So, there have been different periods since her arrest. So, she was arrested in May 2018. So, from May 2018 'til August 2018, we weren't allowed to have any visits. And so, starting from August, my parents could see her once a month. So, from August ’til December, she was in prison in Jeddah.
And during this period where we weren’t allowed to have any visits, she has been tortured. As you said, she has been flogged. She has been electrocuted. She has been sexually harassed. She has been deprived of sleep. And that was the period where she was in a secret prison.
And when they allowed for the visits, she was back in the normal prison. In December, she was flown back to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where my parents live. And starting from December, January, it was again the one visit per month.
In March, they announced that there was going to be a trial. So, that’s when she found out the charges. So, for almost a year, she didn’t know what the charges were. So now she’s still in prison. She’s facing a trial, but the trial is really not transparent, because we don’t know when the next session is. We don’t know how everything is going to be processed. So, she’s just waiting endlessly, yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Walid, in terms of the charges against her, what is the government accusing her of doing?
WALID AL-HATHLOUL: So, typically, when—before her arrest, local media was saying that, like—local media, that is semi-government and, to some extent, owned by the government, typically they were saying that she was accused of being associated with foreign entities—we don’t know who these entities are; they haven’t specified them—like working as a spy, basically, getting finance from foreign entities and undermining state security.
When the trial started, we didn’t know exactly like what the official charges were at the time. But when—on the first session of the trial, which was on March 13, when we saw the list of charges, like, really, there is nothing that says that she was being a spy or she was being financed by foreign entities. Like, there is, like, a document, that is a fake document, that is being circulated on Twitter and social media, saying that she received a check of 9 million Qatari riyals. I believe it’s around 2 million U.S. dollars. So, they are showing that she got that. But on the official list of charges, there’s really nothing that says that. Like, most of the charges are related to her human rights activism, like having contacts with Human Rights Watch, having contacts with Amnesty International, like having contacts with foreign—accredited foreign journalists in Saudi Arabia. And even one of the charges is actually applying for a job at the United Nations. So, clearly, there is nothing that says—that is actually backing these allegations that started when she was first arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who—Lina, can you talk about who Saud al-Qahtani is, one of the top advisers to the crown prince? And what is he doing in this jail with your sister?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: So, officially, I don’t think he has any power anymore. But what we have been hearing is that—so, before all of the Saudi affairs, he was a consultant in the Royal Court. And so, he was one of the people who were welcoming Loujain when she arrived in Jeddah, when she was transferred the first time, when she got arrested. And when she arrived in Jeddah, he asked her: Would she prefer 20 years of imprisonment or the death penalty? So that was the first time she saw him. And then—so, during the torture sessions, she told us that he was part of these torture sessions and that he was the one ordering it and that he was clearly laughing at her and mostly enjoying these times.
AMY GOODMAN: Was he threatening her with rape?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: Yes, he did. He was threatening her with rape and murder. And he even said that if he wants it, he can even make her body disappear in the sewage system.
AMY GOODMAN: Was she waterboarded?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: Yes, she was. She was waterboarded. She was sexually harassed. She was flogged. She has been electrocuted. She has been deprived of sleep. She has been forced to eat 'til she couldn't accept it anymore.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—in her years of activism, I’m wondering the conversations you had with her in terms of her insistence that she had to stand up in a society that is so repressive of women, and what kinds of conversations you had about what drove her to take this courageous stand.
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: I mean, Loujain has always been very brave and courageous, and she has always hated injustice. And she has always told us that it has been—because they always tell her, “Yeah, slow down. It’s going to happen. Don’t force things.” And she has always been saying, “It’s been 20 years that we’ve been silent, and women still can’t drive. Women still can’t—are considered as child 'til their death. So, I don't want to wait anymore, and things have to happen, and we have to act.” So, she was really convinced that acting was the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to your sister. I want to go to Loujain Al-Hathloul in her own words. In 2016, she and her husband were interviewed by Nick Pelham of The Economist magazine.
NICOLAS PELHAM: And what difference would it make to your own lives if you actually—if you could drive, if your wife could drive? Would your life fundamentally change? Is it such a huge issue for you?
LOUJAIN AL-HATHLOUL: It’s a constant issue that I face every day, and not only once a day, like emotionally, too, because we fight a lot because of that issue. Like, who’s going to drive me around? Who’s going to take me? And just to beg people to take me around is insulting enough. For the financial part also, it does affect a lot. It takes a good 30% to 40% of my salary sometimes to pay for drivers just to take me to the necessary things, the necessary places, like home to work, work to home.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Loujain Al-Hathloul. She has been imprisoned for a year now, just over a year. According to U.S. intelligence officials, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sanctioned an operation to carry out a secret campaign against dissidents. The missions were carried out by what U.S. officials call the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, whose members appear to have been involved in the torture and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The group also seems to have been involved in the detention and abuse of more than a dozen Saudi women’s rights activists who campaigned against the ban on driving by women, including Loujain. Can either of you talk about this force? Do you know about it?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: No, I don’t.
AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you, on the driving issue: Is it true that when the crown prince announced that women would have limited access—they would be able to drive, that at the same time the world was hailing him as a great, forward-thinking leader, he was arresting the very driving activists, like your sister, who had fought for this for so long, telling them they should not tweet, they should not comment, on Saudi Arabia ending the ban on driving? Can you explain what this was all about?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: Yes. So, before the announcement, all of the activists have been told not to comment anything. And at the very beginning, we really thought it was a good thing, because maybe in a society that’s a bit traditional, etc., maybe it’s the good thing to do to calm down maybe the people who are against it and who are not used to changes. So we really thought, “OK, it’s OK. We won’t comment anything. Just make it happen, because what we want is change.” And so, we didn’t—they didn’t comment anything. And when we saw that afterwards, even they stayed silent, but they got arrested. They got tortured. So we really—we now changed our vision, and we really think it wasn’t maybe the right thing to do, to be silent from the beginning.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Walid, I wanted to ask you—both you and your sister now live abroad, obviously, not in Saudi Arabia. Do you have concerns yourself about the reach of the Saudi authorities to those who speak out, even if they’re not in the country?
WALID AL-HATHLOUL: To some extent, yes. But I’m taking my—you know, I’m being very cautious in terms of my movements and where I go and, you know, also how to communicate. Yes, I do have some concerns, but so far I have not been—I haven’t received any direct threats. But I do have—I do receive, like, threats on social media. But that’s not a direct threat to me. So, yes, I do have that kind of concern, because we have seen people who were targeted abroad, and I fear that this could happen to me, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your parents are still in Saudi Arabia. How are they faring? And how often do they get to speak to your sister?
WALID AL-HATHLOUL: So, they speak with my sister like every Sunday. But I have, like, limited contact with them, because we can’t really reach them on a daily basis, if we can put it that way. Yeah. So we have really limited communications with them.
AMY GOODMAN: At a gala dinner last month honoring Time's list of the world's 100 most influential people, the comedian Hasan Minhaj called for the release of Loujain. Minhaj also called out Jared Kushner, who was at the gala, over his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
HASAN MINHAJ: I know there’s a lot of very powerful people here, and it would be crazy if—I don’t know—if there was just like a—I don’t know—like if there like a high-ranking official in the White House that could WhatsApp MBS and say, “Hey, maybe you could help that person get out of prison, because they don’t deserve it.” But that would be crazy. That would be—I mean, that person would have to be in the room. But it’s just a good comedy premise.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hasan Minhaj speaking at the Time 100 event, where Jared Kushner was. And he was talking about freeing your sister. What do you want Jared Kushner, President Trump to do?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: So, we’re speaking for things to change. So, whoever has the power to do something about it, we really wish they would act and ask for her release. And that’s what—all we want is our sister to be free. So, whoever has the power.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the importance of, tonight, your sister being honored by PEN?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: That’s really great. I think that a recognition, even for Loujain, I mean, it gives her so much more—knowing that she’s supported gives her—she breathes a bit of freedom while in jail, knowing that she’s supported. And I think it’s really important for her to stay strong. And for us also, I mean, it’s—we’re a bit weak sometimes because we feel like we don’t have any power in our hands to change things. But knowing that people are being supportive is really good, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you comment, very quickly, on the two women who are also being honored along with your sister, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman Al-Nafjan, also Saudi feminist activists in prison?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: Yes. I think it’s really great that it’s not only Loujain, that other women who are maybe a bit less internationally known are also awarded, because they have fought as much as Loujain, and they also deserve it, yes. And I’m really proud of them, as well, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Jared Kushner is sometimes referred to as the—well, the two of them, MBS and Jared Kushner, “the crown prince and the clown prince.” What do you think of their close relationship, almost seen as the crown prince whisperer, just recently went there, to Saudi Arabia, to meet with him yet again, even after the murder of Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist?
LINA AL-HATHLOUL: To be honest, I’m not very political, so all I know is really my sister’s story. And I can’t comment something I really don’t know anything about, so…
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Lina and Walid Al-Hathloul, sister and brother of the jailed Saudi activist Loujain. She has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than a year for her fearless advocacy for women’s rights.
Happy Birthday to Tey-Marie Astudillo!