As It Happens·Q&A

Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul is out of prison, but 'not truly free,' says family friend

Uma Mishra-Newbery says she feels "an incredible sense of relief" knowing that her friend Loujain Alhathloul has finally been freed from a Saudi Arabian prison. But the Saudi activist still has restrictions on her movement and activities.

UBC grad released after 1,001 days, but still faces heavy restrictions on her movement and activities

Loujain al-Hathloul spent 1,001 days in a Saudi prison for her work as a women's rights activist. (Loujain Alhathloul/Facebook)

Read Story Transcript

Uma Mishra-Newbery says she feels "an incredible sense of relief" knowing that Loujain Alhathloul has finally been freed from a Saudi Arabian prison. 

Alhathloul, a Saudi women's rights activist and University of British Columbia graduate, served 1,001 days of a six-year sentence for agitating for change, pursuing a foreign agenda and using the internet to harm public order. It was the second time she'd been imprisoned for her activism.

Her family announced Wednesday that she had been released. The judge in the case suspended part of her sentence and gave her credit for time already served. Several other activists arrested alongside her remain in prison. 

Mishra-Newbery is a Geneva-based human rights advocate, manager of the #FreeLoujain campaign, and a family friend of the Alhathlouls. She says the recently released activist is "not truly free" as she still faces a five-year travel ban and three-year probation during which she cannot continue her activism. She also continues to be labelled a terrorist in Saudi Arabia.

She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about her friend's case and the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Here is part of their conversation. 

How are you feeling this week to know that your friend Loujain is no longer behind bars?

It is definitely an incredible feeling, an incredible sense of relief, knowing that she is at home, knowing that she is no longer in prison, knowing that she has been released, knowing that she is not facing torture or another hunger strike or psychological torture, knowing that she is with her family and that she's able to see her sisters and her brother and her nephews. So it's an amazing feeling.

As you understand, how are Loujain's spirits?

From what I know and what the family has shared, Loujain is doing OK.

[Her sister] Alia shared [at a] press conference [on Thursday] that Loujain asked everybody how they were. You know, this is a person that has been spent 1,001 days in prison. And so for her to turn around and ask how everybody is just shows her strength, you know, her fortitude in all of this.

She has lost weight. And this is, of course, because of the fact that she has been on two hunger strikes, and she has been tortured.

But, you know, from what the family has reported, the very first thing that Loujain did upon her release was to go to the supermarket and buy ice cream.

Alhathloul speaks with her sister Lina al-Hathloul after being released in Saudi Arabia. (Lina Alhathloul)

And you can see in a photo that her sister posted after her release, a smile lights up her face. Do you have any sense, has she talked about, or do understand the degree to which she suffered quite brutal conditions in prison?

She, of course, is not able to publicly speak about anything, but [her siblings] Walid, Lina and Alia yesterday posted on on their own Twitter accounts that one of the questions that they always asked throughout this nearly three years of imprisonment is why Loujain never told them about the torture when it was first taking place, which was very early on in her imprisonment in 2018. 

And the response that they learned is because Loujain couldn't actually talk about it. There was someone apparently standing, you know, literally behind her waiting to electrocute her if she said anything about the torture. So, you know, we can only ascertain from that very basic admonition that the conditions were very intense, indeed, for Loujain.

You mentioned that this last time in prison was for violating terrorism laws. Can you tell us what exactly it is that she was accused of having done?

The charges against Loujain have always been absurd. You know, this is simply in terms of the charges for her using her Twitter account and talking about [Saudi Arabia's] male guardianship [laws], because she used to post videos on Kek, which is a now defunct social media platform. 

She was fighting for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia. And it wasn't just the right for women to drive. It was the right to protect women escaping domestic violence. It was the right for women to run in civil elections. Loujain was one of the first to register in the elections.

And her activism came as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was presenting himself as someone who is modernizing the society, who was opening up the rights for women. So why does Loujain pose such a threat to the regime?

I think any time you have a government such as Saudi Arabia that is, you know, saying that they are going to reform or that they are pushing for these reforms, and yet they are arresting so many of the people that are fighting for these reforms, it is very clear that reform is not actually what they want.

As Lina has mentioned many times in the press, Saudi Arabia has become very much a police state for so many of its citizens, you know, and including the Alhathloul family. It's very troubling. And we know this because Loujain was not the only Saudi activist that was imprisoned and [others] still remain in prison.

We still have a long way to go until we reach unconditional freedom for Loujain and for all Saudi activists.- Uma Mishra-Newbery, #FreeLoujain campaign manager

We should point out Loujain studied in British Columbia at UBC. She began some of her activism there. Canada spoke out against her treatment and the treatment of other activists, and Canada was punished for it. [Saudi Arabia] withdrew the<<[Canada's] ambassador. They suspended all kinds of trade and flights to Canada. Other countries have also spoken out, and Saudi Arabia has just slapped them back. So what is it, do you think, now that has persuaded the regime to release Loujain?

It would be difficult to not say that the change of administration in the United States has provided a much-needed catalyst for Loujain's release. I mean, we are very aware that given advocacy efforts, that nothing was really happening in terms of international pressure in the past few years. And with the change of administration, there has been a renewed sense of holding Saudi Arabia accountable.

That being said, there is a feeling within the campaign that the international governments definitely have not done as much as they can do. There is still so much more scope to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. There are so many more avenues to apply that pressure.

And so what we would urge for international governments to really consider is what does doing business with a government like Saudi Arabia mean for them? What does it mean when they're doing business with a government that holds its citizens in prison and that detains the very activists that have fought so heavily for these reforms that they so publicly tout? You know, there is a price to pay for all of this, and we would urge governments to do the right thing here.

The White House is saying today that [it] reminds Saudi Arabia that it still regards it as an important ally in the war against terror. Does it worry you that maybe [in] the United States, this is a symbolic gesture to have helped Loujain, and that that's it? That they're not going to push for her true freedom, or that of others?

Many are seeing this a victory. But we are very clear within the campaign, and the family is very clear, that this is not freedom for Loujain. Nor does it signify the meaningful push towards the release, the unconditional release, of the other detained activists.

So there is no stopping for us. Because for us, what we are calling for and what we are demanding in terms of justice for Loujain is bringing those who tortured Loujain to justice, including [former royal court advisor] Saud al-Qahtani, dropping all of the charges against Loujain, lifting the travel ban on Loujain and the entire family, paying reparations to Loujain for her illegal imprisonment, and finally holding the local newspapers in Saudi Arabia accountable for the intense defamation campaign that they ran against Loujain.

We still have a long way to go until we reach unconditional freedom for Loujain and for all Saudi activists.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC British Columbia. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now