When Loujain Al-Hathloul laid eyes on her parents for the first time following her arrest she smiled and assured them she was OK.

But despite her best efforts, the 29-year-old imprisoned women's rights activist couldn't hide the pain crippling her bruised and battered body. She could barely walk or sit down and was unable to grip a pen, according to her sister Lina Al-Hathloul.

"They were shocked by what they saw," Lina said of her parents in an emotional speech at the Women in the World summit in New York this month, reports news.com.au.

During a later visit from her parents, Loujain broke down in tears and told them the devastating truth. She had been beaten "until her thighs were black with bruises", subjected to whippings and waterboarding, tormented with electric shocks and threatened with rape and murder.


She spoke of being woken up in Saudi Arabia's Dhahban prison by masked men at midnight, blindfolded, thrown into the boot of a car and taken to the basement of a nearby hotel she called the "Palace of Terror". It was there the torture sessions were carried out.

"These are the things my brave, resilient sister has endured while in prison," Lina continued.

Loujain has been behind bars since May last year after being kidnapped off the streets of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by Saudi government officials, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an apparent bid to silence political activism.

She had been studying for a Masters degree in applied sociological research in Dubai when she was abducted, flown back to Saudi Arabia against her will and held without charge in a secret location.

She was released after a few days but banned from travelling outside the kingdom and warned not to use social media. But her conditional freedom was shortlived and things took a turn for the worse when Loujain was arrested at her parents' house in Riyadh just a few weeks later.

Following a wave of arrests, she was one of several female activists imprisoned by the "progressive" regime of the Crown Prince, for what the Saudi government deemed to be "suspicious contact with foreign parties".

"All over the Saudi media my sister's name and photographs were published alongside a single word: 'traitor'," Lina said.

Saudi Arabia finally made it legal for women to drive just five weeks after Loujain was detained while she still languished in jail.


On the cover of Vogue Arabia, Princess Hayfa Bint Abdullah Al Saud donned driving gloves and posed in a cherry-red convertible above the headline "Driving Force", as women across the country applied for driver's licenses in droves.

But many of those who previously fought for the legislation change and were jailed for it still haven't been freed. Loujain, an early proponent of the right to drive movement, is among them.

She was among the first to challenge laws, boldly posting videos of herself driving, and signing the 14,000-strong petition urging an end to restrictions on women's rights to marry or travel outside the country without a male guardian's permission.

Loujain has now been in custody at Hayer prison in Riyad for one year and is awaiting trial along with the other 10 female activists on charges including contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.

In Loujain's case, the charges rely on a series of alleged confessions which state she admitted to applying for a job at the United Nations and to being in contact with human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

A six-page charge sheet also lists her "crimes committed" to include activism against the kingdom's restrictive male guardianship laws, CNN reports.

Loujain Al-Hathloul has a
Loujain Al-Hathloul has a "dazzling smile", her sister Lina told the Women in the World summit. Photo / Supplied

"These are not crimes," Lina said.

"They are the actions of a broad-minded humanitarian with moral courage."

Several women's rights advocates said that they had been warned not to speak to the news media about the lifting of the driving ban, in an apparent effort by the Saudi authorities to discourage the idea that activism can bring about social change.


Last week, a Saudi court adjourned a hearing in the activists' trial. A panel of three judges at the Riyadh criminal court had been expected to examine their response to the charges, filed earlier this month, and possibly announce sentences for some of them.

Riyadh has faced pressure from Western governments to release the women, most of whom were detained last year in a wide-ranging crackdown against activists just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.

"In the courtroom two weeks ago, Loujain handed my parents (a letter) addressed to me and my siblings: 'What would I be without you?' she wrote," Lina said.

"Now, I ask the question: what would this world be without Loujain Al-Hathloul?"

Loujain Al-Hathloul, 29, has been in prison for one year without charge. Photo / Supplied
Loujain Al-Hathloul, 29, has been in prison for one year without charge. Photo / Supplied

Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director Samah Hadid said Saudi authorities "must end this misery for the women activists and their families".

"They must immediately release them and drop the ridiculous charges against them," Ms Hadid said.

"The world is watching the trial and will keep up the pressure until the women are released."

In a statement issued by Amnesty International last month, a spokesperson said the women were accused of being 'Agents of Embassies' and have been "tortured and sexually harassed in prison".

At one emotionally charged court hearing, some of the women broke down as they accused interrogators of subjecting them to electric shocks, flogging and groping in detention, two people with access to the trial told reporters.

A Saudi prosecutor roundly rejected the accusation, witnesses said, reiterating the government's stance.

In March, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) — a cross-regional group of 36 States including all EU Member States, called for the release of the women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. It came one week after the Saudi Public Prosecution announced that some of the activists would be referred to trial.

The joint-statement called for the release of Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon Al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi and Shadan Al-Anezi. Three of them have since been granted temporary release.

"These women human rights defenders are detained only because they fought for their right to exist equally as men, in their country," ISHR's Human Rights Council Advocate Salma El Hosseiny said.


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo / Getty Images
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo / Getty Images

It's not the first time Loujain has been reprimanded by the Saudi government and imprisoned. Her first stint in jail came when she was 24-years-old after she live-tweeted herself driving into the country from the UAE. She was detained for 73 days as a result.

"Five years ago … Loujain joined the many heroic activists who for decades have been fighting for Saudi women's rights to drive," Lina said.

"The following year she was arrested for the first time for the crime of driving while female.

"The experience was frightening but my sister is brave.

"The arrest did not stop her from driving again."

She went on to stand for election in Saudi Arabia in November 2015 — the first time women were allowed to both vote and stand in elections in the state. However, despite finally being recognised as a candidate, her name was never added to the ballot.

Loujain later moved to Dubai in the UAE to pursue her masters degree. She worked hard. But it was while there that Saudi Arabian officials hunted her down and forced her back to the kingdom.


Loujain and Lina Al-Hathloul as children. Photo / Supplied
Loujain and Lina Al-Hathloul as children. Photo / Supplied

The ultra conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia has silenced political and human rights activists for decades.

It's one of the most repressive countries in the world and has long been criticised for imposing some of the toughest restrictions on women.

Under draconian male guardianship laws, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, or exit prison.

They also regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In some cases, women are also required to provide guardian consent in order to work or access healthcare.

In addition to facing punishment for "moral" crimes such as wearing a short skirt, women can also become the target of "honour killings" at the hands of their families, according to activists.

The regime is known for making threats against family members as leverage in return for silence.

In many cases, Saudi citizens and visitors — including activists and dissidents — have disappeared without explanation.

Loujain al-Hathloul is widely known as one of Saudi Arabia's leading women's rights activists. Photo / Supplied
Loujain al-Hathloul is widely known as one of Saudi Arabia's leading women's rights activists. Photo / Supplied

In an apparent crackdown on the women's supporters earlier this month, Saudi authorities arrested at least nine writers and academics, including two US-Saudi dual nationals.

The Saudi government has so far not publicly commented on the incident, the first of its kind since journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, which sparked unprecedented global scrutiny of the kingdom's human rights record.

The kingdom's silence on the topic has been deafening but it's a strategy Lina doesn't want to emulate.

"For a long time I believed that staying silent was the best way to protect Loujain from further harm," Lina said.

"But the injustices against her have only continued.

"I have no choice but to speak out and use my voice because my sister cannot.

"Our silence will not keep them safe."

While Lina says she "never learned to fight like (her) sister" their courage in the face of adversity is distinct.

In one of her last public posts on Facebook prior to her arrest, Loujain posted a quote, which is now more profound than it was before.

"I will win," it read.

"Not immediately, but definitely."