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Jailed Saudi activist 'told to deny torture in release deal'

Loujain al-Hathloul Hathloul is among a few detainees who have accused interrogators of torture and sexual harassment [File: Marieke Wijntjes/Reuters]

Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has rejected a proposal to secure her release from prison in exchange for a video statement denying she was tortured in custody, her family has said.

“The Saudi state security has visited my sister in prison recently. They have asked her to … appear on video to deny the torture and harassment,” her brother Walid al-Hathloul said on Twitter on Tuesday. “That was part of a deal to release her.”

There was no immediate reaction from Saudi authorities.

Hathloul, who recently marked her 30th birthday in jail, is among around a dozen prominent female activists who are currently facing trial after being detained last year, just as Saudi Arabia ended a ban on women driving cars, for which many of the detainees had long campaigned.

Al-Hathloul was among a few detainees who accused interrogators of torture and sexual harassment, a charge vehemently denied by the government.

Her brother said on Twitter she had initially agreed to sign a document denying that she had been tortured, as a precondition for her release.

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He added that her family had intended to keep the deal secret. But state security officials recently visited her again in prison to demand a video testimony.

“Asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn’t sound like a realistic demand,” Walid tweeted.

“When the state security asked her to sign the document for the video release, she immediately ripped the document. She told them by asking me to sign this document you are involved in the cover-up and you’re simply trying [to] defend Saud Al-Qahtani who was overseeing the torture,” he wrote.

Al-Hathloul’s siblings allege that al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who has also been implicated in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was present during some of the torture sessions and threatened to rape and kill her.


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The Saudi public prosecutor has said his office investigated the allegations and concluded they were false.

Meanwhile, the activist’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, separately said her sibling was under pressure to deny the torture claim. “Loujain has been proposed a deal: deny the torture and she’ll be free,” Lina wrote on Twitter.

“Whatever happens I am certifying it [one] more time: Loujain has been brutally tortured and sexually harassed.”

Threats to rape and kill

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Some of the charges against the women on trial fall under the kingdom’s cybercrime law stipulating jail sentences of up to five years, according to rights groups.

Those against Hathloul include communicating with 15 to 20 foreign journalists in Saudi Arabia, attempting to apply for a job at the United Nations, and attending digital privacy training, her brother has said.

Scores of other activists, intellectuals and Muslim leaders have been arrested separately in the past two years in an apparent bid to stamp out possible opposition.

Some of the detained women appeared in court earlier this year to face charges related to human rights work and contacts with foreign journalists and diplomats, but the trial has not convened in months.

Al-Hathloul and some of the other women described in the closed court session in March the mistreatment they had experienced, sources familiar with the matter said at the time.

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Their cases have drawn global criticism and provoked anger in European capitals and the US Congress following last year’s murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

Rights groups say at least three of the women, including Hathloul, were held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to abuse including electric shocks, flogging, and sexual assault.

Saudi officials have denied torture allegations and said the arrests were made on suspicion of harming Saudi interests and offering support to hostile elements abroad.