Loujain al-Hathloul before her arrest
Loujain al-Hathloul before her arrest.

Flowers for Loujain

After more than 1,000 days in prison, Saudi activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Loujain al-Hathloul, BA’14, has been released, but her family has not finished their fight for her freedom.

 

“Loujain is at home!!!!!”

Lina al-Hathloul’s joyous tweet on the morning of Wednesday, February 10, was accompanied by a photo of her broadly grinning, but wan, sister and a collective sigh of relief from the global human rights community, who for months had been campaigning for the activist’s release from prison in Riyadh.

An outpouring of congratulatory posts, many in Arabic, appeared on Lina’s Twitter account, and the announcement was retweeted tens of thousands of times over the course of the day. Al-Hathloul’s brother Walid, who lives in Toronto, also took to Twitter, stating, “@LoujainHathloul is released but not free and the work to bring her torturers to justice is still going on.”

Only a day earlier, Lina had tweeted a grim milestone: her 31-year-old sister had been behind bars for 1,000 days. Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested by Saudi state security in May 2018, along with nine other dissidents, and held on the vague charges of destabilizing the country using foreign funding and communicating with foreign diplomats and journalists.

By this time, she had been a thorn in the side of Saudi patriarchy for several years due to her activism for women’s rights , which shifted into high gear the year she graduated from UBC. On December 1, 2014, she was arrested and jailed for 73 days after challenging the country’s driving ban on women by posting a video of herself driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. In 2015, she ran for office in the first elections open to women in Saudi Arabia. She demanded an end to the Saudi system of male guardianship, which dictates that every female must have a man, or even boy, who makes all critical decisions on her behalf, and she spoke out against the scourge of domestic abuse in the country.

Although the Saudi government lifted the driving ban shortly after her 2018 arrest, Loujain remained incarcerated and was soon sucked into the vortex that is Saudi Arabia’s prison system.

Even behind bars, the courageous activist remained a lightning rod for women’s rights campaigners around the world, sparking a host of hashtags and protests demanding her release. She has been nominated for various international honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize.

But even behind bars, the courageous activist remained a lightning rod for women’s rights campaigners around the world, sparking a host of hashtags and protests demanding her release. She has been nominated for various international honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Most recently, she was listed as a finalist for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders, and named Human and Civil Rights 2021 Trailblazer by the US-based International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

After enduring more than two years of torture and solitary confinement, and going on two hunger strikes to protest her ill treatment,  Loujain was sentenced in December to a five year, eight month term behind bars after a trial held in the Specialized Criminal Court, which prosecutes terrorists. Two years and 10 months of the sentence were suspended, presumably for time served.

Loujain’s release is conditional; she is on three years’ probation and banned from foreign travel for five years. While on probation, she can be re-imprisoned for any perceived criminal activity. In effect, this ensures her “silence,” says Uma Mishra-Newbery, family spokesperson and #FreeLoujain organizer. This will prevent  Loujain from carrying out important projects she was working on before prison, such as starting a shelter for victims of domestic violence. It might also mean she is sequestered to her home, Mishra-Newbery says from Geneva. “Thank goodness she is home safe, but she is very much not out in the public.”

The Saudi government has tried to whitewash Loujain’s arrest and imprisonment, not only by declaring her a terrorist but by trying to force her to rescind her claims of torture. Loujain was offered release from prison in 2019 if she made a video statement that no torture that took place. However, she refused, Mishra-Newbery says, adding that she couldn’t release any personal information relating to Loujain’s current state of health.

Loujain and her family launched an appeal relating to both the sentencing and the so-called investigation by the Specialized Criminal Court relating to allegations of torture. The court has determined that no torture took place due to a lack of evidence. However, Loujain’s family — her parents act as her lawyers — is not backing down from the appeal and seeks an unconditional release and an overturning of her conviction as a terrorist.

In an earlier media release posted on the family’s official “Loujain AlHathloul” website Lina al-Hathloul stated “it is important to recognize that my sister is not safe…out of prison until she is unconditionally free. This means no threat or intimidation, no risk of reprisal, no probation, no travel ban — both for Loujain and our entire family who at this time cannot leave Saudi Arabia.” The release warned that Loujain may be in peril following release from prison, with Twitter trolls calling for her death.

Jackie Hansen, the Ottawa-based Major Campaigns and Women’s Rights Campaigner for Amnesty International Canada, calls Loujain’s release “terrific.” However, “she’s still a convicted terrorist. So it’s not the end of the story.”

The human rights community has suggested that Loujain’s release may have been influenced by new US President Joe Biden’s tough stance towards Saudi Arabia since taking office. Saudi’s autocratic royal family, led by 35-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, enjoyed a close relationship with Washington under former president Donald Trump. Despite the CIA concluding that the crown prince  had ordered the savage 2018 assassination of Washington Post journalist, Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi, Trump maintained close ties with him. In contrast, Biden has come out strongly against Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing role in the Middle East, stating America would end support for offensive weapons and arms sales to the country due to the seven-year war in neighbouring Yemen that is being fought between a Saudi-led coalition and Iran-linked rebels. On February 10, Biden stated from the Pentagon, “I have some welcome news that Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, from prison. She is a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her is the right thing to do.”

“I have some welcome news that Saudi government has released a prominent human rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, from prison. She is a powerful advocate for women’s rights and releasing her is the right thing to do.”
– US President Joe Biden

Mishra-Newbery says that such remarks carry international heft. “I think it does help to have governments that use to pressure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.” However, she says, even more pressure must be brought to bear on Saudi Arabia, not only on behalf of Loujain al-Hathloul but for the estimated hundreds of other human rights activists and political prisoners of conscience — female and male — languishing in Saudi jails.

The torture and sexual assault that Loujain endured at the hands of her Saudi gaolers was anguish for her family and friends. To honour Loujain and spread her support of human rights, Lina and Mishra-Newbery have co-authored the lavishly illustrated book, Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers, to be released in February 2022 by the publisher minedition, headquartered in Hong Kong.

Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers tells the allegorical tale of a brave young girl who follows her dream of learning to fly. All of the males, including boys, are allowed to fly by pulling on feathered wings every morning, and only those who can fly are able to see  a magical colourful field of sunflowers in the sky. The young girl, Loujain, watches her baba (father) attach his wings every morning and fly away, and she begs him to allow her to try. Encouraged by Loujain’s mother, her baba agrees to teach her. This draws taunts from classmates, but the dream eventually becomes reality, with Loujain inspiring other girls to dare to learn how to fly.

 “We would love for kids, upon reading this book, to know that, if they see something that they think is unfair… they have every right in the world to speak up about it,” says Mishra-Newbery. “We hope that this book not only helps kids be brave, but also that parents support their kids. Loujain is young, she started her activism in her early 20s, and she is a real-life hero. I think this makes the book even more inspiring.”

The book also provides an age appropriate explanation of Loujain’s fight for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. Mishra-Newbery adds that Loujain was not aware that the book was being created while she was in prison.

The fight for Loujain’s freedom has been one of protracted effort by the international community, and her release is due  to the relentless pressure from activists, utilizing tools like social media, says Mishra-Newbery. “Every ounce of pressure helps, specifically international pressure [from governments].” She applauds Loujain’s friends and fellow UBC grads (Loujain graduated in 2014 with a degree in French) who continued to push the Canadian government to help secure her release from prison.

Canada has been criticized for exporting Light Armoured Vehicles, manufactured by southwestern Ontario’s General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, to Saudi Arabia, a confidential $14 billion contract governed exclusively by Saudi law that was signed in 2014. Last April, Global Affairs Canada concluded a review of export permits to Saudi Arabia, stating it would now review permit applications on a case-by-case basis under a rigorous risk assessment framework. A caveat includes ensuring that “Canadian goods cannot be exported where there is a substantial risk that they would be used to commit or to facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law or serious acts of gender-based violence.”

Media relations spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, Grantly Franklin, stated in an email to TREK that the department had advocated for the early release of Loujain and “frequently raised Canada's human rights concerns with the Saudi government, both in public and in private. Canada will never hesitate to defend human rights and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”

 

Keep an eye on the al Hathloul family’s “Loujain AlHathloul” website for updates on this case and ways you can help.