The family of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul issued a scathing rebuke to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a press conference Thursday, a day after the women’s rights defender was released from prison.
Hathloul, who alleges that she was tortured and sexually assaulted while in prison, is a prominent women’s rights defender. Her arrest in May 2018, alongside several other female activists, cast doubt on a rapid-fire series of measures that the Crown Prince had billed as part of a sweeping reform agenda.
The arrest sweep came weeks before a notorious ban on women driving was lifted. Hathloul, and others who were detained with her, were prominent advocates of women’s right to drive in the kingdom.
After Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, jailed the long-time advocates, critics accused him of trying to monopolize credit for the women’s rights reforms.
The firebrand prince, now 35, canceled many of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative rules, and modernized the economy. But he was also rapidly consolidating his power in the royal court, and ramping up the kingdom’s crackdown on dissent.
“We really see that women empowerment is a lie in Saudi Arabia, that there are no real reforms,” said Brussels-based Lina al-Hathloul, who was a driving force behind the international campaign for her sister’s release.
“People are still oppressed and even more so now … there is really an atmosphere of fear under MBS.”
Hathloul was released just days after Saudi Arabia passed a series of draft judicial reforms, which they say will institute the presumption of innocence and “raise the level of integrity and efficiency of the performance of judicial agencies.”
Her case was widely seen as a travesty of justice. Critics called her charges — which included harming national security and seeking to change the Saudi political system — politically motivated.
UN experts called the charges “spurious.” In a six-page charge sheet for Hathloul’s case, seen by CNN, a section entitled “crimes committed” includes activism against the kingdom’s restrictive male guardianship laws, along with contact with foreign journalists and diplomats.
The charges also relied on a series of alleged confessions, according to the documents, which state that Hathloul admitted to applying for a job at the UN along with confessing to being in contact with the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Hathloul’s release, as well as the draft judicial reforms, come less than a week after the administration of President Joe Biden called on the kingdom to improve its rights record and release women’s rights activists. Marking a departure from former US President Donald Trump, Biden has vowed to take firmer stance on Saudi rights abuses.
During the press conference, the Hathloul sisters thanked Biden for his help in securing Hathloul’s release.
‘We laughed a lot’
During Thursday’s press conference, Hathloul’s siblings urged people not to say that she had been “freed.”
“Loujain is not free. She’s been conditionally released,” said Lina al-Hathloul.
Hathloul is currently on probation and has been banned from travel for five years. Her siblings say she will be avoiding posting on social media for fear of violating her probation, but will continue to press Saudi courts to investigate her allegations of torture.
Saudi authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of torture and sexual abuse in their prisons.
Hathloul also alleges that a former top advisor to MBS, Saud al-Qahtani, was present during at least one of the interrogation sessions. Qahtani did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the allegation when it was first reported in 2019.
“Loujain recognized him,” said Alia al-Hathloul at Thursday’s press conference.
The siblings recounted the moments after Hathloul’s release from prison. “Loujain went out to get ice cream,” said Alia al-Hathloul. “Because she loves ice cream.”
“I know we are all relieved … to go to bed yesterday and say yeah she’s going to sleep in a warm bed and not in a cold bed,” said Alia al-Hathloul. “She doesn’t like the cold. And the prison was cold.”
They described the calls they had with their sister as emotional and joyful. “We laughed a lot,” said Lina al-Hathloul.
“She was very calm, very strong. She was happy to talk,” said Alia al-Hathloul.
The siblings say that shortly after her imprisonment, Hathloul was transferred out of the prison to a basement in an unknown location which she dubbed “the palace of terror,” where she was allegedly subjected to torture and sexual abuse. She later detailed her hardships during her parent’s prison visits — the siblings then spoke out about her allegations.
But while she was allegedly in the basement and during phone conversations with her siblings, she assured them that everything was OK.
After her release on Wednesday, Hathloul told them that when she spoke on the phone during that period, prison guards held an electrocution device to her ear, the sisters said. The guards threatened to activate it if she complained about her detention conditions, according to the siblings.
Saudi authorities did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the allegations made in Thursday’s press conference. Saudi Arabia has not responded to recent requests for comment on torture allegations.
The siblings say they are ways away from reuniting with Hathloul, due to her travel ban and because they are afraid of entering the kingdom again, for fear of reprisals. “We’re scared that if we get stuck there, there will be one less voice for Loujain,” said Lina al-Hathloul.
Meanwhile, they vow to continue to fight for justice.
“Loujain entered prison as a ‘traitor and agent of embassies’ whereas the major capitals of the world rolled out the red carpet for her jailer,” tweeted Toronto-based Walid al-Hathloul hours after Hathloul’s release on Wednesday. “Loujain left (prison) having received international recognition. Whereas her jailer takes the lead in the international press for thuggery and rogue acts, and the red carpets are no longer being rolled out.”
“Dramatic changes, glory be to you, oh God.”