Who is Afraid of Loujain al-Hathloul's Release? 

Published March 24th, 2020 - 09:04 GMT
Loujain al-Hathloul remains in Saudi prison (AFP File Photo)
Loujain al-Hathloul remains in Saudi prison (AFP File Photo)
Highlights
Loujain, 30, had already been behind bars for nearly two years and the authorities in Riyadh should follow the example of Tehran which has released Nazanin Zahgari-Ratcliffe on a tag to stay within 300 metres of her parents' home.

The sister of detained human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul is calling for her to be freed on a tag after her trial in Saudi Arabia was postponed indefinitely by the coronavirus outbreak.

Lina al-Hathloul spoke out after the hearing was twice put off in a week, first because the judge was ill and then because of Covid-19, which has closed all courts in the desert kingdom.

She said Loujain, 30, had already been behind bars for nearly two years and the authorities in Riyadh should follow the example of Tehran which has released Nazanin Zahgari-Ratcliffe on a tag to stay within 300 metres of her parents' home.

The British-Iranian charity worker is one of 85,000 prisoners who tested negative for the virus and have been freed on bail to prevent the spread of infection.

Lina said her sister should be allowed out on a tag if the Covid-19 outbreak could result in a prolonged delay to the trial going ahead.

"Anything is better than being in prison," said the 25-year-old, whose parents have a house  in Riyadh where she could stay.

"Her family are worried this could drag on because nobody knows how long the courts will be closed by the virus and Loujain shouldn't just be abandoned. Everything is unclear – she's just waiting endlessly without knowing anything. She has asked for temporary release before but they have never accepted that."

Lina said her sister had emerged "stronger and more positive" following eight months in solitary confinement which ended last month when she was transferred to the Al Hayer prison, 25 miles south of the Saudi capital. But the court delays are a big setback.

Prior to the move she had been subjected to horrific torture treatment which included waterboarding, electric shocks, force feeding as well as threats of rape and murder.

In August she was offered the chance of release if she appeared in a video denying she had been tortured, which she refused to do.

"She knows the authorities are trying to break her but she's not giving up," Lina told The New Arab. "The torture sessions were not interrogation sessions. The torture was just because they enjoyed it. They would laugh at her. It was to break her and humiliate her".

One of Loujain's chief tormentors, who oversaw the torture process, was Saud al-Qahtani, the close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accused of directing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Loujain is accused of contacting foreign diplomats at the British and Dutch embassies in Riyadh, as well as the EU and campaign groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights watch.

It is the fourth time she has been jailed or detained.

The first and most famous occasion was in 2014 when she was jailed for 73 days after trying to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates and was arrested at the border.

In 2017 she was detained for sending a petition to the king demanding an end to the male guardianship system.

Then in March 2018 she was pulled over in the UAE and flown by private jet to Saudi Arabia where she was put on a travel ban and released.

She was re-arrested the following May as Saudi Arabia prepared to lift the ban on women driving and did not want rights campaigners, such as Loujain, taking the credit on social media and calling for more reforms.

Since her transfer to Al-Hayer prison, the authorities have tried to stop Loujain preparing for her trial by confiscating legal papers which her parents bring with them on weekly visits.

"My parents are her legal representatives and they're supposed to be able to come with legal documents for her when they visit as preparation for the trial," Lina said.

"But when they come in they take the papers from them, papers which Loujain has asked for, so she can't prepare her own case".

"When she talks about such things on the phone they cut off the call. They really try to break her – they don't want it to be a fair trial," she added.

"But the truth is that everything they have done to her is illegal. They postponed the trial without giving a reason, or giving a new date," Lina told TNA.

"When she tries to prepare her defence she is not given the right documents, she has been held in solitary confinement for eight months without reason, she's been tortured with electric shocks, she's been waterboarded, force fed, flogged, beaten sexually harassed. Threatened with rape and murder. All illegal."

"If they do allow her to go free she will be put on a travel ban and not allowed to speak. There's an atmosphere in Saudi Arabia right now and nobody dares to talk anymore."

This week human rights groups also called for al-Hathloul's immediate release.

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Middle East Research Director, said "In prison, Loujain has suffered torture, sexual abuse and solitary confinement - compounding the fact that she has been deprived of her freedom unjustly for almost two years now.

"It is high time the authorities not only drop these ludicrous charges but also ensure independent and impartial investigations into her treatment in detention, and hold those responsible accountable for their actions. This is the only course of action that would lend some credibility to the authorities' reform drive."

Lina is one of six siblings, three of whom now live abroad campaigning for her release.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.


Copyright @ 2020 The New Arab.

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