Human RightsMiddle EastSaudi Arabia

MBS lying about reforms in Saudi Arabia: Released activist’s family

The siblings of a recently-released Saudi women’s rights defender have called for “real justice” in the case of their sister Loujain al-Hathloul, saying Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is lying about reforms in the kingdom and oppressing his people.

Alia and Lina al-Hathloul made the comments at a press conference on Thursday, a day after Loujain, 31, was let out of jail following nearly three years of imprisonment in a case that sparked widespread international condemnations.

The prominent activist has been placed on probation for three years and banned from travelling abroad for five years, her family said.

Loujain had fought for years for women’s rights to drive in Saudi Arabia before being arrested, along with several other female activists, in 2018, shortly after bin Salman — better known by his initials MBS — rose to power, and only weeks before the heir to the Saudi throne lifted the notorious driving ban as part of his so-called reform campaign.

While incarcerated, Loujain was subjected to severe torture including electric shocks, waterboarding, flogging, and sexual assault, according to the activist herself, her family, and human rights activists.

At the online presser on Thursday, Loujain’s siblings called on people not to say she had been “freed.”

“Loujain is not free. She’s been conditionally released,” said Lina from Brussels.

Both sisters said Lojain would avoid using social media and speaking to journalists for fear of violating her probation, but will continue to seek justice for the torture and sexual assaults she had been subjected to in prison.

“What we want now is real justice,” said Lina, a driving force behind the international campaign for her sister’s release, adding that her sister should be “completely” and “unconditionally” be freed.

“She is very determined to use all means that exist within the legal framework in Saudi Arabia in order to exhaust all the possibilities in order to, I would say, obtain her rights,” Lina said. “It was unjust, and she doesn’t like injustice.”

‘Saudi people living in fear under MBS’

Loujain’s sisters further used the conference to deliver a sharp rebuke to bin Salman, rejecting his claims of seeking reforms in Saudi Arabia.

“We really see that women empowerment is a lie in Saudi Arabia, that there are no real reforms,” Lina said. “People are still oppressed and even more so now…there is really an atmosphere of fear under MBS,” who is the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

“When we talk about other things involving women’s rights, we don’t see any real improvement. It’s all about whitewashing,” added Lina. “We’ve never had the state security as it is now, you know, that they can just break into a house, take a person without a warrant, make them disappear for years.”

Soon after coming to power, bin Salman tried to sell himself to Saudi Arabia’s Western allies as a competent young leader seeking to reform certain rules in the conservative kingdom. He was quick to allow women to drive and changed the country’s guardianship laws, among other measures.

However, paradoxically enough, the crown prince launched a heavy-handed crackdown of dissidents soon after those measures. Many of the activists who had campaign in support of the same reforms that bin Salman appeared to be championing were imprisoned on charges ranging from disrupting peace to harming national security.

‘Situation in Saudi Arabia tied to what happens in US’

Hathloul’s release weeks after new US President Joe Biden took office. He has called on Saudi Arabia to improve its dark human rights record and pledged to take a firm stance on that issue, in what has largely been seen as a departure from the stance of his predecessor Donald Trump, who was a staunch supporter of MBS and acted on several occasions to shield him from being taken to task for his crimes.

Commenting on the timing of her sister’s release, Alia explained that “Saudi Arabia’s situation is tightly connected to what’s going on in the US.”

“It’s a fact that Loujain was imprisoned during the previous administration [in 2018], and it was really hard to get anything. And it is a fact that she was released a few days, few weeks, after Biden’s arrival to power… I even would say, thank you, Mr. president,” she added.

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