British Columbia·Video

'We won't stop until full justice is achieved': Loujain Alhathloul's sisters speak out after her release

Loujain Alhathloul, 31, spent just over a thousand days in detention in Saudi Arabia, including stints in solitary confinement. She also says she was tortured. Following her release on Wednesday, her sisters vowed to fight for justice.

31-year-old activist remains subject to travel ban, plans on holding alleged torturers accountable

Loujain Alhathloul was on Wednesday released after almost three years in a Saudi prison. (Lina Alhathloul/Twitter)

Alia Alhathloul was driving through the snowy streets of Brussels, on her way to pick up her children, when she received the call she'd been waiting on for years.

Her sister, Loujain Alhathloul, had been released from a Saudi jail a day earlier than anticipated, her voice booming through the car's Bluetooth speakers.

"I was so amazed to see this strong woman who was asking me 'How are you?' like I saw [her] a few days ago," said Alia.

"That's the Loujain I know."

Loujain, 31, had spent just over a thousand days in detention in Saudi Arabia, including stints where she was allegedly held in solitary confinement, tortured and cut off from family phone calls. She is now a convicted terrorist in Saudi Arabia, tried under the country's vague terrorism and cybercrime laws.

But when she was released on Wednesday, there was one thing she wanted more than anything: ice cream.

"She said 'I need to go to the supermarket to buy ice cream.' So what I did with my kids is, we went to the supermarket and we also bought ice cream even though it's cold and snowing. We felt we had to do the same thing to try to be with her as much as we can," said Alia.

Speaking in a news conference held over Zoom, Alia and her other sister Lina were jubilant over Loujain's release but bracing for a battle ahead and wary that they might say something to hurt her case.

While she is at home with her parents, Loujain remains subject to a five-year travel ban and three years' probation during which she cannot use social media or continue her activism around women's rights.

"It's risk management with every word we say, so it's very tiring, it's exhausting," said Lina.

WATCH: Sister speaks about hearing news of Loujain Alhathloul's release

Alia Alhathloul recounts the moment she learned her sister, Loujain, was free

CBC News BC

3 months ago
1:19
Alia Alhathloul was driving through the snowy streets of Brussels, on her way to pick up her children, when she received the call she'd been waiting on for years. 1:19

"Loujain is not free, she's just been conditionally released, and what we want now is real justice — we won't stop until full justice is achieved."

All members of the Alhathloul family remain under a travel ban, the siblings spread over three continents with no prospect of being reunited anytime soon. Alia and Lina are in Brussels while their brother Walid lives in Toronto and Loujain remains in Saudi Arabia with her parents.  

In a photo posted by Lina on Wednesday, Loujain looks gaunt and sports a streak of silver hair. But the smile that has been been plastered on banners and projected onto embassy walls around the world is familiar.

Her sisters say her next move — one that will likely be watched closely by those in Saudi Arabia — is unclear. For now, Loujain is bent on appealing her conviction and ensuring those she says tortured her are held accountable. The Saudi state has said no torture occurred and that the burden of proof rests with Loujain; an internationally recognized activist and a graduate of the University of British Columbia.

"I know she's determined to seek justice regarding the torture," said Alia.

"She is a very determined woman, she has many plans. I don't know what her priority is today so I would imagine that she needs time."

Sudden shift

Loujain's case saw little movement for two years, until she was suddenly called to trial and sentenced to six years in December — leading to speculation that a change in U.S. administrations forced the Saudi state's hand.

On Wednesday U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged her case, opening an unrelated news conference by saying releasing her "was the right thing to do."

"It is a fact that she was released a few weeks after Biden's arrival to power … I would even say thank you mister president for helping my sister be released," said Alia.

For the first year of Loujain's detention her family remained silent, hoping that by laying low and negotiating through Saudi diplomatic channels she would receive fairer treatment. But as her imprisonment stretched on and her physical condition deteriorated, the siblings became de facto spokespeople as they lobbied for support from foreign governments and NGOs.

Lina says, despite those efforts, and even as the case captured the attention of the world, many close allies of Saudi Arabia offered only lukewarm support.

"I have been disappointed," she said. "It was almost impossible at the beginning, and we had to insist that it's not bad to be public about people who are imprisoned and tortured and to condemn it — because you will only gain legitimacy in your own country and you will make positive change in your own allies."

Lina also cautioned against assumptions that her sister's release is a signal that Saudi Arabia is likelier to tolerate dissent or bring in more wide-ranging reforms.

"Loujain's release doesn't change anything about Saudi Arabia's institutional problem," she said.

"The very people who have imprisoned her because she is an activist won't change because she was released now."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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