Saudi rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul starts hunger strike in jail, family says

Campbell MacDiarmid
·3 min read
Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been unable to regularly contact her family while in prison - Reuters
Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul has been unable to regularly contact her family while in prison - Reuters

Detained Saudi rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has started a hunger strike demanding regular family contact after being held largely incommunicado for months, her sister said on Tuesday, saying that Saudi authorities were trying “to break” her.

“She’s not even asking to be freed any more, she’s asking to be able to hear her parents voice on a regular basis and not just disappear for months,” her sister Lina Al-Hathloul told The Telegraph. 

Ms Hathloul was arrested in May 2018 alongside several other prominent activists who campaigned for women’s right to drive, just weeks before Saudi Arabian authorities lifted the motoring ban for women in the kingdom.

The other women detained at the same time were released in April 2019 but Ms Hathloul’s trial was postponed, with her most recent hearing in March this year. Her family say she was then held incommunicado until she was granted a prison visit in late August after refusing food for six days. 

Since then the 31-year-old has not been allowed phone calls and her parents have only been allowed to visit her twice, most recently on Monday, her sister said. 

“She told them that once they leave she’s starting a hunger strike again until she gets her basic rights,” Lina al-Hathloul said. “She cried during the whole session saying that they’re really mistreating her and she’s the only prisoner not having calls.”

About | Human rights in Saudi Arabia
About | Human rights in Saudi Arabia

While in detention her family says Ms Hathloul has been subjected to electric shocks, whippings and sexual abuse.  Saudi authorities say Riyadh "does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture".

Lina al-Hathloul said she was concerned about the deteriorating mental state of her sister, who has been in solitary confinement for most of her detention. “We’re not used to seeing Loujain like this, crying, being negative and not having any hope,” she said.

Ms Hathloul attracted global attention in 2014 when she was jailed for 73 days after filming herself attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, where she had legally obtained a driving license.

In 2015 she was barred from standing as a candidate in local elections, the first that women were allowed to contest.

Her arrest in a sweeping crackdown on dissidents in 2018 was interpreted by critics of the kingdom as a move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to assumed credit for the kingdom’s modernising drive and control the narrative around the lifting of the decades-old women’s driving ban.

In August last year, Ms Hathloul’s siblings said authorities had offered to release her if she agreed to retract her allegations of torture and sexual harassment.

As the women detained alongside Ms Hathloul in 2018 have since been freed, her family and advocates say she had been singled out for additional punishment. 

“The only explanation for that is that she’s been the most vocal, so she’s being punished,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

“They see the only way to silence her is to break her,” said Lina al-Hathloul. “They don’t want to release a strong woman who will continue everything she has been doing for years.”

Saudi Arabia insists it is committed to women’s rights and last week virtually hosted a G20-linked women’s conference, which was criticised for whitewashing the kingdom’s rights record.  

“Empowering women is a priority to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the foreign ministry said in a tweet ahead of the Women20 summit, which aims to advance gender equality in G20 negotiations. 

“Saudi holding a women’s rights conference while five high-profile women rights activists are detained is the height of hypocrisy,” said Mr Coogle.