Loujain al-Hathloul, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent advocates for women’s rights, has been jailed for more than a year on charges that human rights groups have deemed baseless. She refused an offer of freedom in exchange for recording a videotaped statement testifying that she had not been tortured, her siblings said last week.
She and other imprisoned activists have said they were tortured by Saudi authorities while in custody. Saudi Arabia has denied abusing detainees.
Hathloul’s brother, Walid al-Hathloul, said Saudi officials recently visited her in prison. They “asked her to sign on a document where she will appear on video to deny the torture and harassment. That was part of a deal to release her,” he wrote on Twitter.
The development is the latest in a case that has drawn attention to the kingdom’s human rights record nearly a year after the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia continues to jail women’s rights activists even as it moves toward relaxing restrictive laws.
Hathloul rose to global prominence several years ago as an advocate for women’s rights to drive and to move freely through the conservative gulf kingdom without male guardianship. She was arrested in May 2018 amid a crackdown on dissidents.
Walid al-Hathloul said his sister had considered an earlier demand by authorities that she sign a written statement that she hadn’t been tortured, he said but she refused a videotaped statement.
She reportedly told officials that by proposing the deal, “you’re simply trying [to] defend Saud Al-Qahtani who was overseeing the torture,” Walid al-Hathloul wrote, naming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s senior adviser, who was also implicated in Khashoggi’s murder.
A Saudi official denied that Hathloul was tortured during detention and disputed that she was offered a deal that would guarantee her release.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes any allegations of ill-treatment of defendants awaiting trial or prisoners serving their sentences very seriously,” the official wrote in a statement.
Hathloul’s family, however, has spoken out about the torture and sexual harassment they say she has suffered in prison.
Her sister Alia al-Hathloul wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in January that Hathloul had told their parents during a rare visit that she had been tortured between May and August 2018, a period when she was not allowed any visitors.
“She said she had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder. My parents then saw that her thighs were blackened by bruises,” Alia al-Hathloul wrote.
Hathloul’s sisters repeated those allegations on Twitter last week.
“As a reminder, Loujain was subjected to torture in a secret prison/hotel near Dhahban from May to August 2018. Her torture exceeded all applicable regulations and laws in Saudi Arabia,” Alia al-Hathloul wrote in Arabic on Wednesday.
Still, she called on her sister to accept the deal. Hathloul’s supporters would see through a video denial and understand it to be false, Alia wrote on Twitter.
The family had planned to stay silent when they thought Hathloul would be released in exchange for simply signing a written statement, Walid al-Hathloul said in a tweet. But after she refused the video deal, the family decided to speak out to draw attention to her plight.
Lina al-Hathloul wrote Tuesday that “Loujain has been brutally tortured and sexually harassed.”
She added Wednesday, “We have no guarantee whatsoever that if she accepts the deal, they’ll free her. We are tired of false promises.”
In 2014, Hathloul famously live-streamed herself driving in the United Arab Emirates to protest the Saudi ban on women driving — an act for which she spent 73 days in prison. Time magazine named her on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people this year.
A month before the ban was repealed in June 2018, Saudi authorities — on the orders of the crown prince — rounded up Hathloul and several other women who had campaigned for the right to drive, accusing them of undermining national security by colluding with foreign enemies.
Human rights groups said the arrests were meant to send a message: Changes would come from the top, not from the grass roots.
The activists were held for nearly a year without trial. In November, people briefed on their conditions told The Post that several of the women had been subjected to psychological or physical abuse.
The trial has not convened in months, according to the Reuters news agency.
The women’s cases have highlighted a paradox underlying Mohammed’s efforts to burnish his image as a reformer: Even as he breaks with tradition and rolls back restrictions on women’s rights in the conservative kingdom, he stands accused of overseeing the torture and extrajudicial killing of critics.
Khashoggi’s grisly killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October drew international condemnation and broad scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. Saudi agents killed and apparently dismembered Khashoggi in an operation that a U.N. investigator determined Mohammed must have at least known about, if not approved.
Hathloul’s siblings say their sister has told them that Qahtani, the crown prince’s adviser, had watched her being tortured and had threatened to rape and kill her.
The Saudi public prosecutor said his office investigated those claims and concluded they were false, according to Reuters.