Sister of Saudi women’s rights activist urges star jockey Hollie Doyle to boycott Saudi Cup

Exclusive: ‘Persecution happens every day, it is happening now, and it will continue during the Saudi Cup,’ says Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Thursday 18 February 2021 12:18 GMT
Lina al-Hathloul noted Doyle, who came third in last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, has a “huge public profile” - arguing that “responsibility” accompanies her public stature
Lina al-Hathloul noted Doyle, who came third in last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, has a “huge public profile” - arguing that “responsibility” accompanies her public stature (Reuters)

The sister of a leading Saudi women’s rights activist has urged star British jockey Hollie Doyle to boycott the Saudi Cup over the country’s alleged mistreatment of both her own sister and its prisoners of conscience.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who successfully campaigned for women to have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, has recently been released from jail under strict conditions which block her from travelling outside of Saudi and place her on probation.

Her younger sister, Lina al-Hathloul, has now written to Doyle to urge the racing sensation to spearhead a boycott of the Saudi Cup which starts this coming weekend.

Lina noted Doyle, who came third in last year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, has a “huge public profile” - arguing that “responsibility” accompanies her public stature.

In a letter to Doyle, shared exclusively with The Independent, she said: “The Saudi regime has a long record of using sporting events to launder its reputation. That’s not your fault – but through their cynicism, they have made it your problem.

Hollie Doyle (REUTERS)

“Loujain al-Hathloul lost three years of her life inside Saudi prisons – notably the notorious al- Ha’ir prison just a few kilometres from the King Abdulaziz Equestrian Field which hosts the Saudi Cup. In jail she faced physical torture and sexual assault, and the psychological torture of prolonged solitary confinement and separation from her family and legal team.

“Today she is out of prison but she is not free – she is still on probation, still subject to a travel ban, still unable to express herself. Her only crime was to campaign for the rights that you take for granted – the right to drive and the right to come and go as she pleases. And Loujain is not alone.”

Lina warned women’s rights activists such as Samar Badawi, Mayaa al-Zahrani and Nassima al-Sadah continue to be locked up in jail due to campaigning “for equality”.

She added: “In Saudi Arabia, this persecution happens every day, it is happening now, and it will continue during the Saudi Cup. The authorities and their expensive PR advisers want to use events like the Saudi Cup to show the world that the country has changed – but away from these glamorous events the brutality goes on.”

The campaigner warned Doyle, a record-breaker in flat racing, the Saudi authorities will monopolise on her appearance for “their own ends”.

Lina said her attendance would be taken as an indication of “endorsement” whereas if she chooses to boycott the event, she will be effectively telling the world she will not tolerate “brutality”.

Hollie Doyle (Getty Images)

“As a woman we ask you to support the women who have fought for the rights you take for granted, as a sports star we ask you to use your profile for good,” she added. “We beg you to boycott the Saudi Cup while Loujain is denied true freedom and prisoners of conscience remain in jail.”

Louain, who was released last week, had been imprisoned since her arrest in May 2018 and spent around two and a half years in pre-trial detention. Human rights organisations say the Nobel peace prize nominated campaigner has been forced to endure abuse including electric shocks, flogging and sexual harassment while in jail.

In December, the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh, which was set up to deal with terror cases, sentenced Loujain to five years and eight months in prison on terrorism-related charges. But the court suspended two years and 10 months of the sentence in addition to the time already served in prison.

The #FreeLoujain campaign, made up of her relatives and supporters, say her release conditions include a five-year travel ban on leaving Saudi Arabia as well as a three-year probationary period which stops her from carrying on with her campaign work for equal rights for women.

Loujain has also had to sign a pledge as part of her prison release expressly saying she cannot speak publicly about her case or disclose details of her prison conditions, or publicly celebrate the fact she has been released, the campaign group added.

Loujain and Lina al-Hathloul (Lina al-Hathloul)

They state she would be forced to serve the rest of her suspended sentence and possibly face extra charges if she infringes the two terms.

Her family states her sentence also involves her being branded a terrorist in Saudi Arabia as well as noting she is barred from speaking to any members of the media for the next three to five years unless she successfully appeals her release conditions.

Speaking to The Independent, Lina said: “We are delighted my sister is finally home - but she is far from free. My sister is no longer in prison but Loujain is still subject to the authorities’ control. Nothing less than a total exoneration - and for the state to acknowledge and atone for her torture - will do.”

The campaigner had previously been arrested and released several times for defying the driving ban in the highly conservative country. She was arrested with 10 other women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia in May 2018 – weeks before the kingdom reversed the driving ban.

Local press previously said Loujain had been charged with damaging the country's national security and trying to alter its political structure. While she alleges she has been tortured in prison, these claims have been denied by Saudi Arabia.

Lucy Rae, of Grant Liberty, a human rights organisation involved in drawing up the letter, said Doyle should not allow the Saudi authorities to “use her good name to cover up their bad practices”.

“If Saudi Arabia wants the world to believe it is liberalising, the answer is to truly liberalise,” she added. “That means freedom and human rights for all. Until the kingdom truly makes those changes sports stars like Hollie Doyle should refuse to have anything to do with it.”

A representative for Ms Doyle has been contacted for comment and toldThe Independent that they had not yet been able to speak her about the issue.

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