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Saudi Arabia Under Pressure To Release Women's Activist From Jail As G-20 Summit Nears

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The plight of a women's rights activist in jail in Saudi Arabia is gaining new attention as the country prepares to host the G20 summit in about a week. Loujain al-Hathloul has told family she is on a hunger strike. Pressure is mounting on the Saudi government to release her and other women. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Loujain al-Hathloul became known internationally for defying the women's driving ban in Saudi Arabia and for leading the campaign to win the right for Saudi women to drive. Then, weeks before the ban was lifted in 2018, she and several other women's rights activists were arrested.

LINA AL-HATHLOUL: We don't have any news. We don't know how she's doing. We're extremely worried.

TANIS: That's Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain's sister, who lives in Berlin. She says her sister has been tortured in prison, and since March of this year, the government has made it harder for her to see or call her family. So she started a hunger strike, her second in two months.

AL-HATHLOUL: She doesn't want to survive these days when she can't have any access to our parents. So I do believe that she won't give up on this until they fulfill her demands to have regular calls with our parents.

TANIS: Loujain al-Hathloul and the other woman activists have not yet been convicted of any crimes, and there's no information on when their trials will proceed. But her family hopes the international attention will help free her.

AL-HATHLOUL: So our demand is either to have a fair trial and to release her and publicly state that she's innocent or just release her unconditionally and immediately.

TANIS: But it's been hard to engage with Saudi authorities since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power. Even though he's made social and economic reforms a priority, he's also dramatically shrunk civil liberties by cracking down on dissent, free speech and activism.

AL-HATHLOUL: So it's a duty for the international community when they engage with Saudi Arabia to tell them these reforms that you are talking about cannot be believed when the real reformers, the one who has put their lives in dangers, are still in prison.

TANIS: Hosting the G20 is an important step in the crown prince's plan to showcase a modern and open Saudi Arabia. But human rights organizations are urging politicians and businesses to boycott the event, and they're calling for the women to be released. U.S.-based activist and scholar Hala Aldosari focuses on Saudi women's rights, and she says it's unlikely that al-Hathloul and the others will be freed soon.

HALA ALDOSARI: The closer they come to G20, the more they restrict the access to Loujain.

TANIS: She says even though driving has been made legal now, Loujain and the other activists are being punished by the crown prince.

ALDOSARI: For their ability to mobilize, for their ability to expose and for their influence.

TANIS: Aldosari says the crown prince rarely reverses his decisions even if they're harmful to the kingdom's image.

ALDOSARI: We're facing a regime that is very much impulsive, that is not able to predict outcomes of their own, you know, actions. And when they are confronted with the outcry because of those actions, they double down.

TANIS: The Saudi embassies in the U.S. and U.K. did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. Lina al-Hathloul says she will continue to be optimistic for her sister and the other activists.

AL-HATHLOUL: I do believe they will get released, but we have to keep on pressuring and keep on fighting for her.

TANIS: But she's not counting on it to happen before the G20 summit.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.