Relief at the liberation of Saudi Loujain al-Hathloul was brief.
This lasted the minute she reunited with her family on February 10, after three years in prison and torture. Then came the reminder that Hathloul – one of the country’s best-known activists – is not yet free. Without your passport, you cannot leave Saudi Arabia. You can’t talk to the press either.
It was also recalled that other Saudis are still being held for political reasons in what is one of the most conservative countries in the world. There is no official figure, but activists speak by the thousands.
The Saudis have very few opportunities to disagree with the regime or to demand social advances. Hathloul, for example, was arrested for fighting for the right to drive a car, which is why the monarchy accused her of promoting outside interests and using the Internet to disrupt public order.
It is in this context that Hathloul’s release brought a mixture of hope and dismay to Areej al-Sadhan.
His brother Abdulrahman was arrested in March 2018, around the time of Hathloul’s arrest. So let’s hope that Hathloul’s freedom could precede that of his brother. Discouraged that this did not happen.
Abdulrahman was abducted from the office of the humanitarian organization he worked for and has been missing since then. The family didn’t hear from him until February 2020, when he called from prison – but he said next to nothing as he was under obvious surveillance.
“We don’t know what they’re doing with my brother,” says Sadhan, who now lives in the United States. However, she heard other detainees say that Saudi officials tortured Abdulrahman. I also learned that he went on a hunger strike, was forced to eat, and was in solitary confinement.
On other occasions, the Saudi regime has denied allegations that there are political prisoners in the country and that they are under torture.
Sadhan’s family don’t even know why the regime detained Abdulrahman. The case has been under investigation for three years. One of his hypotheses is that the authorities wanted to punish him for criticizing the country on Twitter using an anonymous profile.
Cases like that of Hathloul and Abdulrahman contradict the image that the Saudi regime has tried to project in recent years. In Sadhan’s words, there are two countries today. The first is what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to sell to the rest of the world, an increasingly progressive place. The other, says Sadhan, is “a dark place where all kinds of human rights violations occur.”
Talking about this reality, however, is quite risky. See what happened to his brother. Even in exile in the United States, Sadhan is not out of reach. Just remember the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, spun in 2018 in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“The Khashoggi case is an example of how the Saudi regime is obsessed with silencing anyone who says what they don’t want to hear,” Sadhan says. Saudi Arabia is believed to be invading dissident cellphones abroad and eavesdropping on their conversations. For this reason, those interviewed for this report preferred to do so through secure applications.
“We have no choice but to use our voice,” said Sadhan, when asked about the consequences of talking to a reporter and using his real name. “Staying silent will make things worse. This will give them the opportunity to attack us in silence, in the dark. We are at risk when we go public, but we are also at risk if we remain silent.
One of the theories of activists like Sadhan is that in the total absence of a space for public debate in Saudi Arabia, the only way out is to bring the issue to the international forum. In Hathloul’s case, analysts agree that American pressure – and, in particular, the election of Democrat Joe Biden last November with a pro-human rights speech – has been key.
“Saudi Arabia is the last absolutist theocratic monarchy in the world,” says Bethany Alhaidari of Freedom Initiative, one of the leading organizations defending the rights of political prisoners in the Middle East. “Saudi citizens and residents of the country must risk their lives to claim their human rights. The international community has a responsibility to respond to the issues it raises. “
In this sense, Brazil has taken a different direction. When Jair Bolsonaro visited Saudi Arabia in 2019, he met Bin Salman – accused of killing journalist Khashoggi. You said you had an affinity with him. Bolsonaro also said at the time that “everyone would love to spend an afternoon with a prince, especially you women.”
Activist Abdulaziz Almoayyad, exiled in London, agrees with the assessment that American pressure played a role in Hathloul’s release. A spokesperson for the Saudi human rights organization ALQST, he says there is a Saudi effort to clean up its image now that there is a Democratic government in the United States.
“Republican Donald Trump had given the green light and they did terrible things to people like Hathloul, Khashoggi and thousands of other Saudis. Now they want to go back a bit.
However, Almoayyad despises the relationship between Hathloul’s freedom and the new US government. “It is sad to realize the connection between Biden and these events, which indicates that the Saudi authorities do not want to do the right thing because it is right,” he said. “They take away our rights and the only reason they give us back is because they fear international pressure.”
Alhaidari makes a similar assessment. “The Saudi government is calling for the release of prisoners to tell the international community that it is undergoing an important process of change and reform,” he said. “Hathloul may have been released from prison, but she is not safe. Saudi Arabia is not a safe country for human rights activists. “