Saudi women activists back in court to fight for right to drive : NPR

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Lina al-Hathloul about her sister, Loujain, who was imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for her women’s rights activism.


This week, a group of feminist activists in Saudi Arabia are due back in court. Among them is Loujain al-Hathloul. The group was jailed in 2018 while campaigning for women’s right to drive in the kingdom. They are still being held despite the fact that the women were later granted the right to drive after these arrests.

We are now joined by Lina al-Hathloul from Brussels, who is Loujain’s sister. Welcome to the program.

LINA AL-HATHLOUL: Thank you very much for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First I want to ask you, how is your sister? Have you been able to hear from her?

AL-HATHLOUL: Well, actually, I’m not allowed to have any contact with her. But my parents are – visit him regularly. And they also have phone calls. And she is very strong. But the problem is that she doesn’t really understand what’s going on because everything is just messed up. They restarted the trial. And she doesn’t understand the procedure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do they say she did?

AL-HATHLOUL: To be honest, the accusations are basically his CV. So they accuse him of all his activism. They say she has been in contact with foreign journalists. She is also accused of having applied for a job at the UN, which is very absurd.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s been almost two years since your sister was arrested, but her case hasn’t really been tried. And there was kind of a 10 month hiatus, right? What’s going on?

AL-HATHLOUL: Yes. She was therefore arrested in May 2018. For 10 months, she faced no legal charges. And from April to February 2020, she was held in solitary confinement with no new trial date. In February 2020, they relaunched the lawsuit. And now they’re just stalling because–probably because the G-20 is coming. So they probably have to show the world that they’re doing something, that she’s not being held back for nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does she have a lawyer?

AL-HATHLOUL: My parents represent her, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But if I understand correctly, your parents have no legal training.

AL-HATHLOUL: They have no legal training, but she chose to have them instead of a lawyer because the first lawyer wanted her to deny all the charges and say she did nothing . And she said no. What she wants is to say that yes, she did all these acts, it’s her activism, but she wants to show that nothing is illegal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your sister is internationally considered a political prisoner by many organizations. And your sister and other activists said they were tortured in prison, they were sexually assaulted. Amnesty International supported these allegations. Do you know if anything has changed in their conditions?

AL-HATHLOUL: The torture took place when she was arrested at the beginning, so in – since – from May 2018 to August 2018, where she was held in an unofficial prison and my parents did not know where she was , actually. And when she called them, she said she was at the hotel. We found out at the end of the day that this hotel is a torture center where they put political prisoners and torture them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that the Saudi government has said that the matter has been investigated and has concluded that these allegations are not true. Since coming to power, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has lifted the driving ban and allowed women to obtain passports. It’s something your sister advocated. The question for many people is, why is she still being detained?

AL-HATHLOUL: During his arrest, the Crown Prince had an interview in October 2018, where he was asked about these activists. And he said they are not militants. They are in prison because they are foreign agents, they are spies. And he said, verbatim, that they had videos. Tomorrow we will show you the videos. It was in October 2018.

A year later, he has an interview with “60 Minutes” where they ask him the exact same question regarding my sister and the case of the other women. And he says he has nothing to do with it and the judiciary is independent. So really, this change in narrative really reassures me that what I thought all along was that they arrest all these people, all these activists to make it clear to the people – to the Saudi people – that the change only comes from top to bottom. And people shouldn’t even try to make the changes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I think I’m hearing you say is that you think it’s more about putting activism itself on trial so that it sends a message to other activists not to do not challenge the system.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What would you like to see happen?

AL-HATHLOUL: I really hope they release them all because with all this public relations they have to show that Saudi Arabia is opening up, that it is changing, that it is more liberal, that it is more open. I think the best thing to do is to release all these people and show that, yes, we are changing. And we release them because they did nothing wrong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is Lina al-Hathloul, sister of imprisoned Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

AL-HATHLOUL: Thank you very much for inviting me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We contacted the Embassy of Saudi Arabia to get a response to this interview. They haven’t responded yet.


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