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Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul begins new hunger strike

Jailed women's rights campaigner protesting against restrictions on contact with her family, her sisters say
Al-Hathloul's family have expressed concern for her as she starts a hunger strike for a second time (Reuters)

Jailed Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul has gone on hunger strike, her family said.

According to Hathloul's sisters Lina and Alia, who broke the news on Twitter, the activist launched her hunger strike on Monday at 7pm, in protest against the al-Hair prison administration depriving her of contact with her family.

Hathloul's parents visited her in prison on Monday, when she revealed the news she was emarking on the protest.

"Yesterday during the visit Loujain told (our parents) she is exhausted of being mistreated and deprived from hearing her family’s voices. She told them she will start a hunger strike starting yesterday evening until they allow her regular calls again," Lina said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg News reported that Saudi authorities were severing contact between some of the kingdom’s most well-known detainees and their families during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Typically, detainees were able to make frequent, sometimes weekly, calls to their family. However, according to the report, many of those imprisoned have not contacted their families in months.

Last month, Hathloul’s family visited the activist in prison after three months without contact, and noted that her health had deteriorated after she had carried out a six-day hunger strike in August.

Hathloul's case is a lightening rod for women's rights activists and supporters of human rights worldwide.

A number of human rights organisations have reported that Saudi interrogators have tortured Hathloul, including with electric shocks, whipping and sexual harassment.  She has been denied a proper trial and was held for 10 months before learning the charges she faced.

A petition was started by activists last week calling for her immediate and unconditional release. Meanwhile, many are also raising awareness of her protest by using the hashtag #إضراب_لجين_الهذلول (Al-Hathloul’s strike). 

The hashtag was trending in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, with over 1,300 people using it. 

Translation: As a Palestinian, I know very well what it means to go on hunger strike, which prisoners have gone on during the occupation. It is a decisive battle, which impacts your flesh, blood, health, wellness and you sacrifice the last of what you possess for the sake of your most precious posession, your freedom and freedom only. May God protect Loujain. 

Translation: Her imprisonment, torture and prevention of communicating with her family before a final ruling is issued for her case is contrary to human rights. How do you detain a "suspect" and punish them without evidence of the accusation? Saudi law and the judiciary are down to the mood of certain officials rather than on clear texts and laws. 

Hathloul, 31, is one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent activists. She rose to prominance campaigning for women's right to drive and against the kingdom's laws on male guardianship.

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She was arrested in the United Arab Emirates and deported to Saudi Arabia in May 2018 at a time that Riyadh was granting the rights to women for which she had campagined.

Hathloul's protest comes at the same time as Saudi Arabia is holding the B-20 summit, a forum for business leaders to present policy recommendations ahead of the G-20 meeting of world leaders in November. 

Amnesty International has called the event a "cynical PR campaign", citing a number of women’s rights activists, including Hathloul, who have been imprisoned for their campaigning for women’s rights. 

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty international’s deputy regional director for the MENA region, descibed the event as "shameless hypocrisy" in a statement. 

“Since assuming the G20 presidency, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in rebranding its image, throwing out slogans about women’s equality and insisting it is ready for change. But Saudi Arabia’s real changemakers are behind bars,” she said. 

“B20 leaders must not be fooled by this shameless hypocrisy and we call on them to show they care about human rights as well as business opportunity.”