Story of disappeared Saudi power couple spotlights dissident crackdown

Loujain al-Hathloul posted this photo of her and Fahad al-Butairi on Instagram in 2017.

(CNN)A stand-up comedian and women's right-to-drive activist, Fahad al-Butairi and Loujain al-Hathloul, were once seen as a groundbreaking Saudi power couple in a country that was rapidly relaxing its strict social rules.

Since then, both have been arrested, and a Twitter thread detailing their disappearance has gone viral, keeping alive a debate about the Kingdom's crackdown on dissidents. That debate reached a fever pitch after the October killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
American writer and television producer Kirk Rudell tweeted about his friendship with Butairi, who was widely known as the "Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia," and Hathloul, an internationally-known advocate for ending the prohibition of women driving in the country, on January 2.
    Both were detained in 2018; Hathloul remains incarcerated.
    Rudell tweeted about the couple he met in Los Angeles a few years ago while recording a TV show, and whom he continued to exchange messages with. "I'd like to see what they could do in this world, if they were given the chance," adding, "I'd like to have that dinner with them some day."
    Rudell told CNN he was "surprised" by the tens of thousands of retweets, including a reply from California Congressman Adam Schiff, who said that he would be contacting Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States about the case.
    "The responses were overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive. And it felt like people who didn't know them, who hadn't met them, who might feel they had little in common with this Saudi couple, for some reason seemed to feel the same visceral anger at their separation," Rudell told CNN.
    Hathloul, 29, was arrested in March of last year as she was driving down a highway in the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living. She was then sent to Saudi Arabia and detained. The ban on women driving was eventually lifted, but only months after her arrest.
    Around the same time, Butairi, 33, was detained in Jordan and put on a flight to Saudi Arabia where he was held for days before being released, according to four people close to the couple. It's unclear why he was detained.
    Hathloul was released after some days, only to be arrested again a few weeks later in a sweep that targeted at least 11 women's right-to-drive activists. She remains in jail.
    She and other women's rights defenders have allegedly been subjected to torture by electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual harassment, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and three people close to the detainees.
    A flyer circulating on social media in Saudi Arabia shows activists, including Hathloul, with a traitor stamp over each of their faces.