The first time Loujain al-Hathloul came on the radar of many Saudis was more than seven years ago when she was a college student at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Appearing on Keek, a short video-sharing app that became popular in the kingdom, she was bold and bubbly. Dressed cosily in wool scarves, with a bob of short black hair framing her radiant smile, she shared snippets of her daily life and responded to comments that flooded her videos.
“‘Cover up, woman! Cover up!’,” she mocked the pleas from the commenters. “I won’t cover up and your shitty ways won’t work with me and won’t convince me,” she said defiantly.
She was not considered an activist back then. She was a young woman having fun on one of the many social media platforms that popped up on the scene as smartphones became more common. The fact that she decided to appear without a headscarf and to use her real name when the majority of Saudi women still kept their identities online private elicited a strong reaction, but she did not appear intimidated by all the attacks and threats.
“I would like to congratulate the little gods who responded to my early clips. So you think I’m going to hell, huh?” she said in another video as she laughed. “How would you know? You’ve all installed yourselves in Allah’s position.”
Asked to reflect on her Keek videos and whether she was deliberately trying to provoke a conservative society, Loujain said she was surprised at the reaction which probably had more to do with who she is than what she actually said.
“I was shocked that people found my opinions shocking to society. I didn’t expect that,” she told talk show host Ali al-Alyani during a television interview in 2016. “I don’t think they are shocked by the opinions themselves as much as expressing them eloquently and comfortably, particularly by a girl from Najd who didn’t fit the stereotypes.”
Loujain is strongly driven by her own beliefs and has never seemed overly concerned what people think of her or how she is being judged. She has always come across as someone who knows what she wants and is often able to express that in clear, simple terms.
That interview came more than a year after she was first detained for 73 days following a daring attempt to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2014. The campaign to lift the ban on women driving has gained new resonance in the Arab Spring years, and Saudi women felt the moment was ripe to renew their calls to remove this restriction. Having a young popular social media personality like her on board was seen as a boost to the campaign.
Loujain’s justification for the attempt was simple: she has a valid UAE driver’s license, and there is nothing in Saudi laws that says women are not allowed to drive. That was true on paper, but authorities did enforce a ban on women driving based on unwritten instructions. As she reached the crossing, Saudi border guards did not turn her around. Instead, they allowed her to enter then arrested her.
Not everyone at the Saudi women driving campaign, known as the October 26 Movement, was pleased with her move. Several activists saw it as a publicity stunt that would be costly and counterproductive. Some feared it would make the government delay any potential plans to lift the ban. Despite the disagreements within the movement and a detention experience she later described as “psychologically traumatising,” Loujain was unapologetic.
“I do not regret it. Those who say what I have done delayed the decision to allow women to drive…I don’t think I had any role in that. The first campaign was in ‘91 or ‘90 and it didn’t change anything in women’s status,” she said in the same interview. “There have been 20 years between the first campaign and the second campaign. Twenty years of silence that didn’t change anything. So those who say ‘Loujain, calm down, keep quiet, officials need time to change their mind…’ They had twenty years to do that.”
The decision to lift the ban on women driving won’t come until a year and a half later. The government announced women would be allowed to drive starting in June 2018. However, many activists who fought for years for the right to drive did not get to celebrate that date as several prominent members of the campaign were arrested a month earlier.
Loujain was not in the country at the time. She had moved back to the UAE to start a master programme. Human rights groups said she was forcibly flown from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh where she was held under house arrest before being moved to prison and kept in solitary confinement for months.
Observers were puzzled by the arrests as feminist activism was not historically seen as threatening to the ruling system, even if it was irritating to conservatives. The majority of women’s rights activists appeared supportive of the social liberalisation measures introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Early speculation suggested that perhaps the government did not want the activists to claim any credit for lifting the ban on driving.
But then state-controlled media offered the official line in a highly unusual fashion: names and photos of the detained activists were printed on the front pages of newspapers with words like “spies” and “traitors”. That was followed with a sustained flurry of vicious attacks on them on social media, the second major sign, after the disinformation campaign that accompanied the Qatar boycott, of a rising tide of Saudi ultranationalism that would come to define many aspects of the last few years.
Loujain’s family says she was tortured in custody. Authorities reject the torture allegations, and a court in Riyadh earlier this month dismissed her complaints for lack of evidence. Some of the women were released as they wait for their trials, but Loujain rejected a proposal to secure her release in exchange for a video statement denying that she was tortured, the family says.
The government has accused the women of undermining state security by carrying out intelligence activities and receiving financial support from hostile entities, and officials have repeatedly insisted that the arrests are not related to human rights activism. The specifics of each case remain unclear, but Loujain’s family has published the indictment against her in an effort to paint the case as politically motivated.
According to the document, the public prosecution accused her of contacting foreign diplomats ahead of a visit by the crown prince to Europe and asking them to raise her issue during the trip. As for the accusation of receiving financial support from abroad, the only evidence offered in the indictment is allegedly Loujain’s own admission that a French NGO has given her plane tickets, accommodation and a €50 per diem to attend a cybersecurity course in Spain. Other allegations include communications with individual opposition figures abroad and human rights groups.
Although the 31-year-old Loujain was charged in March 2019, her trial was repeatedly delayed before a series of hearings took place in quick succession this month, and on Monday a verdict was announced.
The Specialised Criminal Court sentenced Loujain to 68 months in prison, with half of that term suspended, over charges including seeking to change the country’s political system and “execute a foreign agenda inside the kingdom using the internet.” The sentence is based on the kingdom’s anti-terrorism law. The court said the decision to suspend 34 months of the jail term was “out of consideration for her conditions.” Counting the time she has already served, she will likely be released in late February or early March on three years’ probation, with a five-year travel ban.
Officials have long maintained that nothing can be done about the case of Loujain and other activists because they are on trial and the judiciary is independent of the executive branch. A suggestion by the Saudi ambassador to London last month that officials were considering clemency for her and other activists ahead of the G20 summit was promptly denied. But two Saudi royal advisers told the Wall Street Journal that the reduced sentence came at the direction of Prince Mohammed, who is said to be seeking to alleviate pressure from Washington before the inauguration of Joe Biden. As a candidate, he has pledged to reassess US relations with the kingdom.
Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the court decision was “unjust and troubling”:
US Senators from both sides of the aisle also criticised the sentence:
Trump’s State Department said the US was concerned about the sentence but “look forward to her anticipated early release in 2021”:
“The partially suspended sentence is likely to be viewed as a nod -- but not a complete capitulation -- to foreign pressure ahead of the transition to a Biden administration expected to be less tolerant of the kingdom’s human rights record,” Bloomberg noted.
The UN Human Rights office called the sentence “deeply troubling”. Amnesty International’s Heba Morayef said the sentence, while partially suspended, is still cruel. “With this deeply flawed trial and the continued relentless crackdown on activists and human rights defenders, Saudi Arabia has proven that its rhetoric on human rights reform is utterly hollow,” she added.
Loujain broke into tears when the sentence was read in court, her family said. “She was charged, tried and convicted using counter-terrorism laws,” her sister Lina said in a statement. “My sister is not a terrorist, she is an activist. To be sentenced for her activism for the very reforms that MBS and the Saudi kingdom so proudly tout is the ultimate hypocrisy.”
Loujain’s parents and lawyers, as well as representatives of the governmental Human Rights Commission, attended the sentencing session. Diplomats from the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, the Northlands, Norway and Denmark were denied access to the courtroom. Reporters from local media were allowed to attend, with the majority of newspapers and online news sites publishing nearly identical accounts of the procedure.
It is unclear what the sentence against Loujain means to the cases of other detained activists, some of them remain on trial. In addition to her personal charisma, the fact that she has three siblings abroad who have relentlessly campaigned on her behalf probably helped keep the spotlight on her case. The same thing cannot be said about many other activists, even if they were detained in comparable circumstances. Mia al-Zahrani, another women’s rights activist, received the same sentence for a similar list of charges, according to local media reports Monday.
Reactions from pro-government pundits and ultranationalist trolls on social media were generally muted but sought to emphasise two main points. First, that the sentence proves that Loujain is a criminal and a traitor who used human rights activism as a cover for serving hostile parties. Second, that suspending half the sentence is a display of mercy by the authorities. The ultranationalists appeared particularly annoyed by the reaction of the French government, who called for Loujain to be “swiftly released”. They posted tweets attacking France and its treatment of the Gilets jaunes protesters.
Both the public prosecution and Loujain plan to appeal the sentence within 30 days. The prosecution will seek a harsher sentence while her lawyer will ask the court to drop the conviction. She also plans to urge the criminal court to hear her torture complaint after it was dismissed the first time, Loujain’s sister Alia told the media.
“I was upset about the sentence, but when I saw that everyone was congratulating me and everyone was excited for Loujain to leave prison in two months, I realised that people consider this ruling a victory for Loujain and everyone understands that the government needs to save face,” Alia wrote on Twitter.
Would Loujain herself consider it a victory?
When journalists from the Economist visited Saudi Arabia five years ago to interview the crown prince, they also sat down with Loujain and asked her about MBS and his reform plans. She said:
I think he will bring a lot of change to the country as a young leader but but he needs probably to focus a little bit more on what the people want instead of what he sees as potential and developed Saudi. To say that his government represents the people is not quite accurate. He’s energetic, he wants change, but he needs to think more about what we want.
Correction: The last item in Monday’s newsletter said nine mosque imams were suspended by the Islamic affairs ministry, citing a report from al-Watan daily. The correct number of suspended imams is believed to be dozens from nine different regions. I apologise and regret the error. You can send your feedback by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @ahmed