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Saudi Women Activists Again In Court To Fight For Right To Drive

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This week, a group of women's activists in Saudi Arabia is due back in court. Among them is Loujain al-Hathloul. The group was imprisoned in 2018 while they were campaigning for a woman's right to drive in the kingdom. They're still being held despite the fact that women were subsequently granted driving privileges after those arrests.

We're joined now by Lina al-Hathloul from Brussels, who is Loujain's sister. Welcome to the program.

LINA AL-HATHLOUL: Thank you very much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask first, how's your sister doing? Have you been able to hear from her?

AL-HATHLOUL: Well, actually, I'm not allowed to have any contact with her. But my parents are - visit her regularly. And they have phone calls, too. And she's very strong. But the problem is that she doesn't understand what is happening really because everything is just messed up. They restarted the trial. And she doesn't understand anything about the procedure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are they saying that she's done?

AL-HATHLOUL: So the charges are basically her CV, to be honest. So they're charging her with all her activism. They say that she has been in contact with foreign journalists. She's also charged with applying for a job at the U.N., which is very absurd.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's been nearly two years since your sister was arrested, but her case hadn't really been tried. And there was a - sort of a 10-month hiatus, right? What's going on?

AL-HATHLOUL: Yes. So she was arrested in May 2018. For 10 months, she didn't have any legal charges. And since April till February 2020, she was held in solitary confinement without a new date for the trial. In February 2020, they restarted the trial. And now they're just trying to gain time because - probably because the G-20 is coming. So they probably have to show the world that they're doing something, that she's not held for nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does she have legal counsel?

AL-HATHLOUL: My parents are representing her, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But as I understand it, your parents have no law background.

AL-HATHLOUL: They don't have any law background, but she chose to have them instead of a lawyer because the first lawyer wanted her to deny all of the charges and say that she didn't do anything. And she said no. What she wants is to say that, yes, she has done all of these acts, which is her activism, but she wants to show that nothing is illegal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your sister is viewed internationally as a political prisoner by many organizations. And your sister and other activists have said that they have been tortured in prison, that they were sexually assaulted. Amnesty International has supported those allegations. Do you know if anything has changed in their conditions?

AL-HATHLOUL: The torture happened when she was arrested at the beginning, so in - since - from May 2018 to August 2018, where she was held in an unofficial prison and where my parents didn't know where she was, actually. And when she used to call them, she used to say that she's in a hotel. We found out at end of the day that this hotel is a torture facility where they put political prisoners and they torture them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that the Saudi government said the matter was investigated and found those allegations not to be true. Since taking power, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has lifted the ban on driving and allowing women to get passports. This is something that your sister was advocating for. The question for many people is, why is she still being held?

AL-HATHLOUL: When she was arrested, the crown prince had an interview in October 2018, where he was questioned about these female activists. And he said that they're not activists. They are in jail because they are foreign agents, that they are spies. And he said, word by word, that they have videos. Tomorrow, we'll show you the videos. That was in October 2018.

A year later, he has an interview with "60 Minutes" where they ask him exactly the same question regarding my sister and the other women's case. And he says that he has nothing to do with this and that the judiciary is independent. So really, this change of narrative really assures me that what I was thinking from the beginning is that they are stopping all these people, all these activists so that they make the people - the Saudi people - understand that change only comes top down. And the people should not even try to make the changes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What I think I'm hearing you say is that you believe that this is more a case of putting activism itself on trial so that it sends a message to other activists not to challenge the system.

AL-HATHLOUL: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What would you like to see happen?

AL-HATHLOUL: I really hope that they release them all because with all this PR, they're having to show that Saudi Arabia is opening up, that it's changing, that they're more liberal, that they're more open. I think that the best thing to do is to free all these people and to show that, yes, we are changing. And we are freeing them because they didn't do anything wrong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Lina al-Hathloul, sister of jailed Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

AL-HATHLOUL: Thank you very much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We reached out to the Saudi Arabian embassy for a response to this interview. They have not yet replied.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKTOR KRAUSS' "EYES IN THE HEAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.