Loujain al-Hathloul, widely regarded as one of the worlds most influential women, is seen in her native country as a threat who must be stopped
Loujain al-Hathloul always likes to ask questions, her brother Walid says. Growing up, she always pointed out the hypocrisy around driving in Saudi Arabia, trying to understand why women were banned from driving. She kept questioning.
But when Hathloul, now 29, was pulled over while driving in neighbouring United Arab Emirates last April before being deported back to Saudi Arabia, the kingdoms rulers began the latest in a series of increasingly brutal efforts to silence her.
Hathloul says she was detained for three days, freed and then seized again from her family home in Riyadh. She says she was blindfolded, thrown into the boot of a car and taken to a detention centre she has called a palace of terror and has been tortured, and threatened with rape and death. Hathloul has now been held for more than a year.
Hathloul was arrested with 10 other women in a sweep targeting outspoken women who had campaigned for the right to drive. The arrests included veteran campaigners like Aziza al-Yousef and blogger Eman al-Nafjan. It marked a crescendo in what human rights groups have branded Saudis year of shame. Clerics, activists, journalists and writers have been targeted.
Eleven women were put on trial for coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom amid accusations of contact with foreign diplomats and journalists. Seven were bailed earlier this year, but Hathlouls brother says the family do not expect the same for her. Observers say Hathloul has received particularly poor treatment in prison because of her role as a leading feminist campaigner, her activism seen as a slap in the face to the kingdoms narrative that change for women should come from the top. As the trial drags on, no one is clear just how long her imprisonment could be.