On an ordinary day almost exactly one year ago, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and saw multiple posts about Loujain al-Hathloul. This was not unusual: we had both graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC), in Vancouver, Canada, I had watched in awe since then as she made international headlines for her fearless activism fighting for women’s rights in her native Saudi Arabia.
But on this particular day, the details of the headlines were profoundly shocking: Loujain faced the death penalty for her activism.
Loujain is in prison, but thankfully she does not face the death penalty at this moment – that particular headline turned out to be false. But the reality of her ongoing ordeal is still ghastly and could still take a turn for the worse. Since May 2018 she has been tortured, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder behind bars by Saudi authorities— in a place she describes in her own words as “the palace of terror.”
Her trial began just last month, where she faces dubious charges ranging from being in touch with human rights organisations to applying for a job at the UN. Saudi media brandish her and her efforts to reverse the country’s driving ban and end the male guardianship system as traitorous to the kingdom. As she — along with 10 other detained Saudi women’s rights activists — await their fourth court session, the absurdity of the charges against her, listed in a six-page document, grows stark. Her arrest in the first place was also absurd: a woman who fought for the betterment of all Saudi women.
Over the past year, a few of us have come together as Friends of Loujain, a collective of Vancouver-based women who knew Loujain from our time together at UBC. We’ve taken a number of actions to call attention to her imprisonment and demand her release. As those who knew her personally, each passing month while she is detained is a forceful reminder to continue raising awareness about her story.
But despite increasing international attention to her and the other activists’ plight, their situation remains grave.
According to leaked medical reports, the first documented evidence shows that Saudi political prisoners are “facing severe physical abuse”. Close to 60 prisoners, many of them women, face severe health problems, such as malnutrition, as a result of their imprisonment in the absolute monarchy. At their last hearing, several of these women broke down in tears, testifying that they were subjected to torture and sexual harassment while detained. Saudi authorities, however, continue to deny these allegations, despite surmounting evidence.
In the weeks since the trial began, three of the women have been granted temporary release, although they still must attend hearings. While we had hope that this is a positive precedent for Loujain’s imminent release — and the rest of the women still detained — a second round of arrests was made on April 4. Saudi Arabia arrested eight people with ties to the detained activists, targeting mainly writers and academic figures.
Loujain’s family has rightly spoken out.
"Pressure from all sides to remain silent," her sister Alia al-Hathloul said on Twitter.
"We were silent and the worst kinds of torture happened while we were silent. I can shut up but only when Loujain is with us and those who tortured her are put on trial."
The Kingdom’s shoddy record of human rights abuses was exposed to the world in October 2018 when Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi was murdered. Meanwhile, the US-and-UK-led war on Yemen, carried out by its Saudi proxy, one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time, continues unabated.
This week Loujain was was named as TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2019. She has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her gargantuan, historic efforts to further human rights have made an impact in not just Saudi Arabia but, clearly, also around the world, despite the Saudi government’s efforts to sway global opinion.
With her fate in the hands of the Crown Prince and his rogue regime, the award may also be the final valve that unlocks her freedom.
While nothing is certain about Loujain and her predicament, one thing is: nothing but a full pardon would be justice.