After 14 months of detention in Saudi Arabia, when Loujain Alhathloul was offered a deal that could set her free, she at first considered taking it.
All she had to do was sign a document saying she hadn’t been tortured or sexually assaulted while in prison.
But this week, the Saudi state set another condition — she would have to appear on video denying the torture. It was a step too far.
“She tore up the paper and threw it back to them,” said her brother Walid Alhathloul, speaking over the phone from Toronto.
“That was too much to ask.”
Loujain Alhathloul, a University of British Columbia graduate who turned 30 in Dhahban Prison last week, has been detained since May 2014, when she was arrested in Saudi Arabia along with nine other women’s rights activists and accused of trying to destabilize the country using foreign funding.
Since then, those charges have been changed to communicating with foreign journalists and attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations.
Loujain Alhathloul has told her family she’s been held in solitary confinement and suffered electrocution, flogging, and sexual assault.
“The way they treated her … nobody could believe that this would happen,” said Walid Alhathloul, 31.
“But I was expecting that she would do something like that. She always amazes me by how strong she is when it comes to fighting for what she believes in.”
Walid Alhathloul said his sister’s decision, while principled, has divided the family.
“We have people saying Loujain should have signed anything, because frankly nobody would have believed it anyway,” he said.
The family didn’t initially talk to journalists when Loujain Alhathloul was detained, fearing that criticizing Saudi Arabia would worsen her situation. They changed their minds after the torture started.
“The Saudis — they’re unpredictable,” said Walid Alhathloul. “They counted on our silence but when we were silent, they escalated.”
‘She questions a lot of things’
Loujain Alhathloul is the fourth of six siblings, four girls and two boys. Her father is an engineer, and her mother is a retired teacher. The kids grew up in Saudi Arabia, but spent a formative five years in France.
“Even if she was privileged, and [had] the freedom of choosing what she wants to be, she wanted to leverage that privilege to help other women,” said Walid Alhathloul.
“She questions a lot of things that don’t make sense to her. We are also millennials, so we had access to information no matter where we [were].”
Alhathloul first made headlines in 2014 after attempting to drive across the border into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates:
Prior to her imprisonment, his sister was always active, Walid Alhathloul said. As a child, she rode horses. When she moved to Vancouver to pursue a degree in French at UBC, she took up skydiving.
After her graduation in 2014, she was arrested for livestreaming herself breaking Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban by driving across the border from the United Arab Emirates. That stunt captured the attention of the world, and got her 70 days of detention. She followed that up by running in Saudi Arabia’s first election open to women.
Walid Alhathloul said their parents encouraged Loujain Alhathloul’s activism even when it landed her in trouble.
“My parents’ policy would be do what you believe in, and go for it.”
Alhathloul family members who remain in Saudi Arabia have now been put under a travel ban, meaning Loujain Alhathloul, her sister, brother, and parents cannot leave. Her two sisters in Brussels and Walid Alhathloul can’t return because they won’t be allowed to leave.
Walid Alhathloul is a reluctant activist, having moved to Toronto to pursue a degree at York University’s business school, always assuming he’d move back to Saudi after graduation.
“All of a sudden I find myself advocating but also being in a place I never wanted to be, with no family,” he said.
When asked what he thinks it will take for his sister to be free again, Walid Alhathloul pauses, then sighs.
“If I had the answer… I would probably be the happiest man on earth.”