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.
        In addition to Hathloul, the detainees include prominent women's rights activists Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Samar Badawi and Hatoon al-Fassi.
        The official Saudi Press Agency said the women's rights defenders were accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country."
        A former aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, was present during at least one of the interrogation sessions and threatened to rape, kill and throw one of the detainees into the sewage system, according to Human Rights Watch and people familiar with the events.
        The Saudi government did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the torture allegations, Qahtani's alleged role in the interrogations and the imprisonment of Hathloul and Butairi. Attempts to reach Qahtani through the Saudi government were unsuccessful. Riyadh previously denied allegations of torture in a statement to CNN following the initial Human Rights Watch report in November.
        "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's judiciary system does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture. Anyone, whether male or female, being investigated is going through the standard judiciary process led by the public prosecution while being held for questioning, which does not in any way rely on torture either physical, sexual, or psychological," a Saudi official told CNN in November. "The Kingdom will continue to uphold accountability and ensure justice is served within its laws."

        Khashoggi's murder emboldens activists

        Turkey has claimed that Qahtani, one of bin Salman's closest and most powerful aides, orchestrated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. After weeks of denying any knowledge of the journalist's fate, Riyadh eventually claimed that his death was the result of a botched rendition attempt, and pinned the blame on Qahtani and a handful of other high-ranking officials.
        Qahtani was removed from his post as bin Salman's communications chief, though he maintained other official positions.
        The killing has sparked global outrage and tarnished bin Salman's reputation on the world stage. The CIA concluded that it believes bin Salman, commonly referred to by his initials MBS, ordered Khashoggi's murder. Riyadh has repeatedly denied that the Crown Prince was involved and says the claims in this purported assessment are false.