Saudi Arabia: Concerns heightened about wellbeing of WHRD Loujain Al-Hathloul, who has been incommunicado for six weeks

24.07.20

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is seriously concerned about the wellbeing of  prominent Saudi woman human rights defender and equality campaigner Loujain Al-Hathloul,  who remains incommunicado from prison for the sixth week according to her family. The family has not heard from her since 09 June 2020.

Al-Hathloul’s family members have been particularly active for the past two years on various fronts including on social media advocating for the release of Loujain, who has been imprisoned since on 15 May 2018 when the major crackdownon WHRDs began in the country . Her brother, Waleed Al-Hathloulsays that he believes the authorities are trying to punish the family for their vocal criticism of her treatment, “We're speaking out and trying to advocate for her release and that's the price we're paying.” 

The curtailment on the activities of WHRDs in the country came as an implicit component of the reform vision 2030launched by the Crown Prince and Chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who claimed that he wanted “to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfil their dreams, hopes and ambitions to succeed in a thriving economy.” This vision appeared to exclude women defenders as partners of change in society.

On 24 June 2020, the anniversary of the date that Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving, Lina Al-Hathloul was interviewed in Ms. Magazine about her sister, Loujain. In the interview, done on behalf of the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, Lina Al-Hathloul mentions that the Saudi authorities continue to deny that Loujain was tortured, and Loujain refuses to sign papers denying that she was tortured in order to be freed from prison. 

Several WHRDs were conditionally released in March 2019, while Al-Hathloul marked two years in prison in May 2020. Her family have been unable to contact her for the past six weeks and have also been prevented from visiting her due to COVID-19 regulations, and as a result, have not seen her in four months. The 30-year-old award-winning activist is due to celebrate her upcoming birthday on 31 July while still in prison and out of reach.

Concerns have been heightened specifically as COVID-19 is still spreading in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Secrecy around the wellbeing and health conditions of the imprisoned defenders causes great anxiety to their families, who fear an outbreak of the virus in the unsanitary conditions of Saudi prisons. Apprehensions are particularly growing following the death in a Riyadh hospital on 24 April 2020 of prominent rights activist Abdullah Al-Hamid, formerly held in Al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh.

The health conditions in the Saudi prisons are reportedly poor and the measures that have been taken by authorities are ineffective. Often, these important issues including crowded prisons are left without being talked about or tackled properly by the Saudi authorities. Many prisoners remain in jeopardy of catching COVID-19 and risk losing their lives – even if they are released.  On 19 July 2020, writer and journalist Saleh Al-Shehi died in Saudi Arabia. He spent two and a half years in prison before being released on 19 May 2020 and sent to hospital.

Al-Hathloul, who was detained and subjected to torture and sexual harassment while in pre-trial detention, led campaigns against the former ban on women driving and also to put an end to the male guardianship system. She is also being held in Al-Ha’ir prison which is the same prison where Al-Hamid was released from before his death. Her sister tweeted that “I have a sister who has been detained without guilt and has been absent from us for a while, and I am afraid that she will face the fate of Al-Shehi. Do they want me to sit idly and wait for her death? No, rather, I will work so that you can live for a free decent life.” 

GCHR calls on the Saudi authorities to respect international human rights commitments, adhere to  proper United Nations standards of care for prisoners and respond positively to the repeated calls of UN experts, UN member states’ representatives and the wider human rights community including international organisations and coalitions to release immediately and unconditionally all WHRDs in Saudi Arabia including Loujain Al-Hathloul. Furthermore, the authorities must allow an independent investigation into their alleged torture and hold perpetrators accountable through due process.

For more information about the crackdown on Saudi WHRDs since May 2018, please find information from the Free Saudi Activists Coalition here.