Editor’s Note: Walid Alhathloul is the brother of jailed Saudi women’s rights defender Loujain Alhathloul. He is based in Toronto, Ontario. The opinions in this article belong to the author. Loujain has been in jail since May 2018. Her family members, activists and human rights organizations say she has been subjected to torture, including sexual abuse. The Saudi government says she and other women’s rights defenders were accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities.” The Saudi government also denies allegations of torture, saying it does not “condone, promote, or allow the use of torture.” The Saudi government did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about Saud al-Qahtani’s alleged role in the interrogations, or the imprisonment of Hathloul.
On Thursday night, Mariah Carey will perform on stage in Saudi Arabia. This concert is a pathetic attempt to show that the country is becoming more tolerant toward women.
But there are many women languishing in Saudi prisons, simply for campaigning for the better treatment of women.
Some of them have been brutally tortured and sexually assaulted. One of these women is my sister, Loujain Alhathloul. As a fan of Carey’s work, I’d like to see her ask for the release of my sister while she is on stage.
After eight months of praying that she’d be released, I am here to tell her story. I am not a writer and have never written an article like this before. But my sister does not belong in prison and I feel I owe it to her to speak up.
Loujain is a women’s rights hero in Saudi Arabia, and the majority of her activism focuses on male guardianship, women’s right to drive and domestic violence. Loujain worked with vulnerable women to find solutions for them so we don’t see cases like that of Rahaf al-Qunun, an 18-year-old who recently sought asylum in Canada.
Loujain’s dream was that these victims could find safety without having to flee the country. She was even in the process of setting up a domestic violence shelter called Aminah, which means “safe” in English. We now know that this shelter was one of the main reasons Loujain was arrested.
One month after her arrest, Loujain called me from a withheld number. She told me she was locked in a “hotel” in Jeddah and not in a conventional prison.
During the conversation, she said “once I’m free I will help you find the woman of your dreams.” I told her “let’s focus on getting you out and then we can think about love and romance.” She has a big heart, and she has always cared more about others than she cares about herself. At that time, we did not know that she was going through regular and systematic torture. With all the pain she’s been through, physically and psychologically, she still only thinks about others.
It saddens me that she was hiding her pain from us. Looking back, every time I asked her about her case she would reply that she couldn’t answer. It seemed like there was always someone monitoring closely and telling her what she could or couldn’t say.
Recently, my parents were able to visit Loujain in jail. She started to talk about how they took her from Dhahban prison at midnight to what is known as the “hotel.” She described it as a “palace of terror” that is 10 minutes away from the prison. She said she was taken blindfolded and thrown into the trunk of a car on the way to this secret place. The torture sessions, she said, normally occur in the basement of this palace.
When I think about what goes on in that basement, I feel sick. My own baby sister said she is being whipped, beaten, electrocuted and harassed on a frequent basis. She said that sometimes there are masked men who wake her up in the middle of the night to shout unimaginable threats. This is the type of treatment she said Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, oversaw. Isn’t that the definition of a rogue state?
Along with the many forms of physical torture, Loujain described how she must also endure horrifying interrogations. One of the investigators said “if you don’t marry me I will rape you.” She said she was also offered the chance to work for them and go after Saudi women living in exile to bring them to Saudi Arabia. She, of course, rejected the offer, and because of that the treatment worsened.
Whenever Loujain spoke about the torture sessions to my parents, her hands shook uncontrollably. I fear the pain will stay with her forever.
It confuses me: Saudi Arabia is so keen to promote itself as a reformer, yet a true Saudi reformer is being held behind bars. Loujain’s work and her values should make her the poster child for the crown prince’s reform campaign. Loujain always envisioned a Saudi Arabia where women had fundamental rights and could live without fear. Loujain is not a traitor, she is a patriot.
When I moved to study in Canada, I was counting down days until I finished school so I could return home and contribute to what is called “Vision 2030.” I was so passionate about it. When I was asked by professors and friends what I would do after I graduated, I would immediately reply that I would return home and help make my country a better place.
After everything that has happened, I feel naïve for believing these illusions, especially after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
I had no idea that my trip to Toronto would be a one-way flight, since my family and I have been put on a travel ban. I had no idea I’d have to make Toronto my new home. I keep asking myself if I will be able to see my family, or my home country, again. Saudi Arabia was never a democratic country. But in the past when an activist was arrested, the family was never implicated. This is no longer the case.
Saudi Arabia always claims that it respects the rule of law. I started to question that, especially now my family is on travel ban without legal basis. The court did not issue any order to place my family on travel ban. If we really want “Vision 2030” to succeed and bring in new foreign investment, people need to be comfortable that the rule of law is respected.
Loujain does not deserve to be in jail. I die when I think about my sister staying in prison and not being able to do anything about it. Loujain is my angel on Earth. But she’s also the hero of many women and girls across Saudi Arabia and throughout the world. We cannot stand by and watch her suffer.
I’ve been silent for eight months, and still, all doors are closed. There is no sign of progress in my sister’s case. All I want is to see my sister free.
Now that I told you the story of my sister, will Mariah Carey call for her release on stage? Will my voice be heard?