Saudi siblings Lina and Walid Alhathloul check their phones constantly for any mention of their sister on social media. They have already done four interviews on the day of the PEN awards and sit down for a fifth, because, they say, this is the only way to help their sister, 29-year-old jailed Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul.
“We want to raise awareness,” says Lina Alhathloul, a lawyer living in exile in Belgium.
On Tuesday, Loujain Alhathloul was honored with the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Two of her siblings were in New York to accept the award on her behalf. Two other jailed Saudi writers, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman al-Nafjan, were also honored by the freedom of expression advocacy group. (PEN America linked to some of their key writing here.)
It’s been a year since Alhathloul was detained and arrested for leading a movement to end Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving and its strict rules against women’s everyday activities without approval from a male “guardian.”
A trial began in March in the Saudi capital Riyadh, but was later suspended with no official date to resume. Lina Alhathloul believes the suspension is a government strategy to keep the activists out of the news.
“What they are trying to do is that the case will just die because there is nothing new, but we won’t give up,” Lina Alhathloul says.
After Loujain Alhathloul’s arrest in May 2018, her parents said she was taken to a secret prison and tortured; water-boarded, flogged and threatened with sexual assault and death, according to her siblings.
Walid Alhathloul says he was emotionally “shocked” when he learned about the abuse. “This is the moment we started to speak out, the worst happened when we were silent,” the brother says.
Saudi officials deny the accusations of torture, but the family raised the alarm when Loujain Alhathloul’s parents were finally allowed to visit her in jail four months after her arrest and said they saw the signs of brutal mistreatment first hand.
“She says that it has stopped,” the sister says about the prison conditions relayed by her parents. But she stresses that the visits are limited: “We can’t confirm anything about her daily treatment,” she says. “I hope when she says she is not tortured anymore, it’s true.”
Lina says Loujain Alhathloul — who has written on her blog about criticism she received for her activism — has always been courageous, but her own courage is tempered with caution. She declines to answer questions about Saudi Arabia’s leadership or comment on reports by U.S. intelligence officials that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sanctioned a campaign against opponents that included the October 2018 torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist who wrote for The Washington Post.
She says she is aware of a growing movement of Saudi dissidents in exile, but says she has no contact with them. “They would probably like to [reach out], but they would know it is dangerous for us,” she says. When Loujain Alhathloul made her first appearance in court earlier this year, her charges included alleged contact with Western human rights organizations. “We don’t want to put her in any danger,” Lina Alhathloul says.
Back in the news
The biggest danger is that international interest in the case drops off, the siblings insist.
While in the U.S., the siblings have had a busy schedule. NPR was one of several outlets that interviewed them on Tuesday, a day that also included a Facebook Live video event with Nick Kristof of The New York Times and a sit-down with Amy Goodman’s public radio show, Democracy Now.
The awards event in New York puts Loujain Alhathloul and the other jailed Saudi activists back in the news, says Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the director of the Free Expression at Risk Program at PEN America.
“We’ve been giving this award since 1987,” she says. “There have been 44 awardees who have been in jail at the time. Of those 39 have been released, in part, because of the attention.”
Last year, the award went to two Reuters journalists from Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, sentenced to seven years in jail for breaking the Official Secrets Act. The journalists had reported on the killing of Rohingya Muslims by security forces in 2017, reporting which also won a Pulitzer Prize. The pair were freed earlier this month after more than 500 days in jail.
It’s a good year to shine a spotlight on Saudi Arabia because of the crackdown on dissent, says Karlekar.
Authorities rounded up more than a dozen activists a year ago. A statement delivered in March by Iceland at the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned the kingdom’s “continuing arrests and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders.”
“There are more than these three Saudi awardees in jail,” Karlekar says. “We picked them as writers because PEN has that connection to writers.”