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Family of Loujain al-Hathloul fight to free imprisoned Saudi activist

When Lina al-Hathloul learned her sister, the Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, had been whisked away by Saudi Arabian police in the middle of the night, she thought it was a joke.

“They came in with so many people, there were so many cars waiting outside,” said Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s youngest sister who lives in Brussels, describing what her family told her at the time. “It was so spectacular that we thought it couldn’t be real.”

It was 15 May 2018, and at that point things were supposed to be different in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was preparing to lift the country’s ban on women driving, protests against which had led to Hathloul’s arrest three times before. The arrest contradicted the picture of a more liberal, modernizing Saudi Arabia that Prince Mohammed was trying to paint in the west.

But the night Hathloul was arrested, several other women – all activists who spoke out against the driving ban – were also detained on unspecified charges. Official statements in state-run news outlets called the women traitors and accused them of making contact with “foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric”.

It’s now been over a year since Hathloul imprisoned, and her family is still fighting for her release, campaigning abroad to try to increase pressure on the Saudi government and highlight the plight of Hathloul and others like her. Members of Hathloul’s family living outside Saudi Arabia have decided that raising awareness in the United States, Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally, may be the only way to get the Saudi authorities to release Loujain.

That marks a change of tack. During the first six months Hathloul was in prison, her family stayed silent in hopes their cooperation with the government would lead to her release. Her family was also placed under a travel ban – still effective to this day – that barred them from leaving Saudi Arabia.

But their desperation reached its peak after learning Hathloul was being tortured in prison. When her parents visited her in December 2018, she showed them black scars on her thighs from electric shocks.

The actor Alec Baldwin and his wife Hilaria Baldwin are among high-profile supporters of the campaign to free Hathloul and other detained Saudi women’s rights activists.



The actor Alec Baldwin and his wife Hilaria Baldwin are among high-profile supporters of the campaign to free Hathloul and other detained Saudi women’s rights activists. Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

At that point, staying silent “wasn’t something optional for us”, said Walid al-Hathloul, Loujain’s older brother who lives in Toronto. “We were in a position where we had nothing to lose. We tried to be silent, we tried everything.”

But Hathloul and her family are unlikely to get any help from the Donald Trump White House. The administration has been hesitant to challenge Prince Mohammed on human rights abuses, including the murder of the US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Instead, Trump has remained amicable toward Saudi Arabia. At the G20 summit in Osaka last month, Trump showered the crown prince with lavish praise during his remarks, calling him “a friend of mine”.

Despite knowing the tough political forces they are fighting against, the Hathloul family and their allies have continued to pen op-eds, give interviews to US news outlets and speak at events to keep their sister in the public consciousness.

The Saudi activist Manal al-Sharif, who lives in self-exile in Australia, went on a 10-city road trip in April across the United States to spread the word about Hathloul and other jailed activists.

Hathloul, along with two of her fellow women’s rights activists, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman al-Nafjan, was awarded the PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award in May. The three activists were honored alongside Anita Hill and Bob Woodward, who received separate awards, for being “dauntless truth-tellers” in May at a gala in New York City. She was also featured in this year’s Time 100.

Most recently, the Human Rights Foundation wrote a letter to the American rapper Nicki Minaj asking her to cancel a performance at a music festival in Saudi Arabia in light of Hathloul’s continued imprisonment. Minaj agreed to pull out of the concert saying she wanted to “make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression”.

Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, said pressure from the White House may be the only thing that would lead Saudi Arabia to release the activists, though it’s unlikely to come from Trump.

“In their view, as long as they have the [Trump] administration in their pocket, … I don’t think the Saudis have a major incentive to change behavior,” Coogle said.

But, despite the lack of action from the US, Lina al-Hathloul said she and her family will keep speaking out in hopes that the Saudi government will release her sister.

“They have to realize that the justice will be made one day,” Hathloul said. “But people have to speak about it and not remain silent.

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