MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Three Saudi advocates for women's rights were honored in New York last night by PEN America. It's a group that defends freedom of expression. None of the women were at the gala because they are caught in Saudi Arabia's crackdown on dissent. The most prominent of them is in jail for leading a campaign to end the kingdom's ban on women driving.
NPR's Deborah Amos met her siblings before the awards ceremony. They're fighting to keep her case in the public eye.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Lina and Walid Alhathloul check their phones for any mention of their sister on social media. They've already done four interviews on this day of the PEN Awards and sit down for a fifth because, they say, the only way to help their sister - 29-year-old Loujain Alhathloul - is to keep up the pressure. Last May, she was one of more than a dozen activists arrested. They went on trial this March. Some were released to house arrest but not Loujain.
Then the trials were suspended. Lina Alhathloul believes this is a deliberate government strategy to keep the issue out of the news.
LINA ALHATHLOUL: What they're trying to do is that the case will just die because there's nothing new. So we won't give up.
AMOS: Lina and Walid now live in exile - Lina in Brussels, Walid in Canada. They say they can't return to Saudi because there's a travel ban on the family. The arrests and a Saudi media campaign was unprecedented. A prominent Saudi newspaper published pictures of the detained and labeled them traitors. This was all just weeks before the kingdom's crown prince lifted the ban on women drivers, portrayed as progress given by the royal family rather than concessions to independent activists like Loujain.
Human rights organizations reported that she'd been tortured after her arrest. Her parents, allowed to visit her after four months of detention, said they saw signs of brutal mistreatment according to her siblings. The Saudi government denies any abuse. The brother and sister are on the way to Washington. Despite backing in the White House for the crown prince, in Congress there has been outrage over the crackdown on dissent. The words are good, says Lina Alhathloul. Now we want to push for action. Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF LISSIE'S "MY WILD WEST OVERTURE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.