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Loujain Alhathloul, Saudi Women's Rights Activist, Set To Start Trial


Five years ago, Loujain Alhathloul put on her sunglasses, got into a car and started to drive - an ordinary act made extraordinary by the fact that Alhathloul is Saudi. And the route she chose was from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. At the time, women were banned from driving.

Alhathloul was arrested, imprisoned, then freed, then arrested again last May just weeks before the ban was lifted. She has been in prison ever since. Her family says she has been tortured and that her trial begins tomorrow. Saudi authorities have denied the allegations of torture. I want to warn listeners. Some details of her story are graphic. Alhathloul's brother Walid Alhathloul joins me now.


WALID ALHATHLOUL: Thanks for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us - may I ask how you have been communicating with your sister while she's been in prison?

ALHATHLOUL: So the way it works in terms of communication is she's allowed to call my parents every Sunday. And this is how we got the updates. So far, she called me directly three or four times to - when she was in the hotel where the torture was taking place. At that time, we did not have any idea that she was being tortured.

KELLY: You mentioned torture. What has she told your family about her treatment in prison?

ALHATHLOUL: At the beginning, she was hiding that. And then when we saw the news saying that she was subject to torture, we got shocked. So, basically, when my parents visited her, they asked about the reports of torture. And...

KELLY: So your parents have been able to speak to her by phone but also to occasionally visit.

ALHATHLOUL: Correct, yes.


ALHATHLOUL: So she mentioned all the details of torture - electrocutions, waterboarding. Also, she was subject to sexual harassment.

KELLY: I read that she was threatened. They threatened to kill her. They threatened to rape her. They threatened...


KELLY: ...To chop her up.

ALHATHLOUL: Correct. That was from the top adviser of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose name is Saud al-Qahtani. And he was actually overseeing the torture.

KELLY: What has she been charged with to your knowledge?

ALHATHLOUL: We don't know yet. When she called last Sunday saying about the trial, she only mentioned few things - that she will be taken to the specialized court at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.

KELLY: A specialized court at 8 tomorrow morning - OK. Go on.

ALHATHLOUL: Yes and the specialized court is the court that deals with terrorism cases. So she will be charged as a terrorist, basically. And they did not provide the list of charges. And she was denied access to a lawyer.

KELLY: Denied access to a lawyer - so she will be there on her own, as far as you know.

ALHATHLOUL: As far as we know, yes. And we also don't know if my parents would be allowed to attend the session.

KELLY: There has been some reporting that the charges may have to do with - she has been accused of destabilizing national security, dealing with foreign entities. To your knowledge, has she worked to destabilize national security or worked with a foreign entity?

ALHATHLOUL: We heard that statement from the public prosecutor. But we did not get an official list of charges. We need an explanation how she was working to destabilize the national security and dealing with foreign entity. I would love to see, who are these foreign entities? These are very broad charges. They are not giving the details.

KELLY: Walid Alhathloul, why speak out now?

ALHATHLOUL: We thought when she was first arrested that being silent would solve the issue. When we found out that she was subject to torture, like brutal torture, that did not solve the issue when we were silent. So we are left with no options. We are now going to the media and bring the attention to the international community. All what we're really looking for is justice for Loujain.

KELLY: Would you like to see the U.S. administration, the U.S. government, put more pressure on Saudi Arabia?

ALHATHLOUL: I don't think I want to answer that question, sorry. It's because, like, it's going to be political, so...

KELLY: And you don't want to get into the politics.

ALHATHLOUL: No, I don't want to get into politics. No.

KELLY: Something you would say to your sister right now if you could get her on the phone and talk to her.

ALHATHLOUL: I would say I love her so much, and I miss her so much. And I wish to see her released as soon as possible.

KELLY: That's Walid Alhathloul. His sister Loujain Alhathloul goes on trial tomorrow in Saudi Arabia. She helped lead the fight for women to have the right to drive in the kingdom. And she has been in prison there since last May. Walid, thank you.

ALHATHLOUL: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.