Prominent Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul rejected a deal for her release. The deal required the women’s rights campaigner to deny being tortured whilst in detention. Al-Hathloul was arrested last May along with ten other activists as part of a government crackdown on critics. They were charged with breaking cybercrime laws and in al-Hathloul’s case: communicating with foreign journalists in Saudi Arabia, applying for a job at the UN and attending digital privacy training. Al-Hathloul’s siblings allege that Saud Al-Qahtani, the former senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, oversaw the torture and threatened to rape and kill the activist and that the deal was designed to protect Al-Qahtani.
The bravery of al-Hathloul has received a lot of admiration. International human rights lawyer Jared Genser tweeted his support, commending the activist’s ”incredible strength in the face of injustice and cruelty.” However, al-Hathloul’s sister, Alia, suggested accepting the offer, tweeting that ”What is important is that you are with us.”
When the ban on women travelling alone was lifted earlier this month, Lynn Malouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, pointed out the hypocrisy of the reforms given the treatment of al-Hathloul and other activists. Malouf asserted that ”the authorities must drop all charges against the defenders of women’s rights” if Saudi Arabia is serious about improving those rights.
The continuing imprisonment of rights activists and the deal offered to al-Hathloul suggests that social reform and the improvement of rights is not an important issue for the Saudi government. Al-Hathloul and the other activists campaigned for the right to drive, for the right to travel independently as well as other rights that Saudi women are still denied. How does the government reward their efforts? With incarceration, electric shocks, and sexual assault. The reforms are nothing more than a public relations exercise for the government to make the Crown Prince look benevolent and to distract from the war in Yemen.
News of al-Hathloul’s torture is appalling but this is hardly the first time reports of human rights abuses have come out of Saudi Arabia. Despite this, the ultraconservative kingdom faces relatively few consequences. Many Western countries continue to see Saudi Arabia as an ally and a business partner. Maybe they would do more if overlooking the Saudi government’s repressive policies was less profitable.
Al-Hathloul has fought and campaigned against restrictions on women for years, rising to prominence in 2014 by live-streaming herself driving in the UAE to protest the ban on women driving. When that ban was lifted in June last year, al-Hathloul was in prison. The male guardianship system, which was partially dismantled earlier this month, was another target of al-Hathloul’s activism as was increasing women’s participation in politics. In 2015, the activist stood as a candidate in the first municipal elections to allow women to run before she was disqualified. This year, she was named as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people. In it, the Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch Sarah Leah Whitson described al-Hathloul as ”a model of Saudi womanhood’ to whom the ‘Saudi people owe a huge debt of gratitude.”
Al-Hathloul’s activism and tireless efforts to improve women’s rights in Saudi Arabia deserve the utmost respect and admiration. If Prince Mohammad wants to be a benevolent ruler who is committed to reforming his kingdom, then freeing al-Hathloul and the other detained activists would be a start. Apologizing for how they were treated and recognizing their extraordinary efforts might also be a good idea.