Story of disappeared Saudi power couple spotlights dissident crackdown

Loujain al-Hathloul posted this photo of her and Fahad al-Butairi on Instagram in 2017.

(CNN)A stand-up comedian and women's right-to-drive activist, Fahad al-Butairi and Loujain al-Hathloul, were once seen as a groundbreaking Saudi power couple in a country that was rapidly relaxing its strict social rules.

Since then, both have been arrested, and a Twitter thread detailing their disappearance has gone viral, keeping alive a debate about the Kingdom's crackdown on dissidents. That debate reached a fever pitch after the October killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
American writer and television producer Kirk Rudell tweeted about his friendship with Butairi, who was widely known as the "Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia," and Hathloul, an internationally-known advocate for ending the prohibition of women driving in the country, on January 2.
Both were detained in 2018; Hathloul remains incarcerated.
    Rudell tweeted about the couple he met in Los Angeles a few years ago while recording a TV show, and whom he continued to exchange messages with. "I'd like to see what they could do in this world, if they were given the chance," adding, "I'd like to have that dinner with them some day."
    Rudell told CNN he was "surprised" by the tens of thousands of retweets, including a reply from California Congressman Adam Schiff, who said that he would be contacting Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States about the case.
    "The responses were overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive. And it felt like people who didn't know them, who hadn't met them, who might feel they had little in common with this Saudi couple, for some reason seemed to feel the same visceral anger at their separation," Rudell told CNN.
    Hathloul, 29, was arrested in March of last year as she was driving down a highway in the United Arab Emirates, where she had been living. She was then sent to Saudi Arabia and detained. The ban on women driving was eventually lifted, but only months after her arrest.
    Around the same time, Butairi, 33, was detained in Jordan and put on a flight to Saudi Arabia where he was held for days before being released, according to four people close to the couple. It's unclear why he was detained.
    Hathloul was released after some days, only to be arrested again a few weeks later in a sweep that targeted at least 11 women's right-to-drive activists. She remains in jail.
    She and other women's rights defenders have allegedly been subjected to torture by electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual harassment, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and three people close to the detainees.
    A flyer circulating on social media in Saudi Arabia shows activists, including Hathloul, with a traitor stamp over each of their faces.
    In addition to Hathloul, the detainees include prominent women's rights activists Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Samar Badawi and Hatoon al-Fassi.
    The official Saudi Press Agency said the women's rights defenders were accused of "suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country."
    A former aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, was present during at least one of the interrogation sessions and threatened to rape, kill and throw one of the detainees into the sewage system, according to Human Rights Watch and people familiar with the events.
    The Saudi government did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the torture allegations, Qahtani's alleged role in the interrogations and the imprisonment of Hathloul and Butairi. Attempts to reach Qahtani through the Saudi government were unsuccessful. Riyadh previously denied allegations of torture in a statement to CNN following the initial Human Rights Watch report in November.
    "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's judiciary system does not condone, promote, or allow the use of torture. Anyone, whether male or female, being investigated is going through the standard judiciary process led by the public prosecution while being held for questioning, which does not in any way rely on torture either physical, sexual, or psychological," a Saudi official told CNN in November. "The Kingdom will continue to uphold accountability and ensure justice is served within its laws."

    Khashoggi's murder emboldens activists

    Turkey has claimed that Qahtani, one of bin Salman's closest and most powerful aides, orchestrated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. After weeks of denying any knowledge of the journalist's fate, Riyadh eventually claimed that his death was the result of a botched rendition attempt, and pinned the blame on Qahtani and a handful of other high-ranking officials.
    Qahtani was removed from his post as bin Salman's communications chief, though he maintained other official positions.
    The killing has sparked global outrage and tarnished bin Salman's reputation on the world stage. The CIA concluded that it believes bin Salman, commonly referred to by his initials MBS, ordered Khashoggi's murder. Riyadh has repeatedly denied that the Crown Prince was involved and says the claims in this purported assessment are false.
    Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects accused of murdering Khashoggi as their trial began in Riyadh on January 3, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
    Leading Saudi activist Hala al-Dosari told CNN that Saudis have been "emboldened" to speak out against the crackdown on human rights since Khashoggi's murder.
    "I was very much silent after the women's arrests thinking that this must be an error," said Dosari. But Khashoggi's death "gave us a sense of urgency that this is not something that you can just wait out. This is a serious thing. People are being targeted and killed."
    The chorus of concern over the Kingdom's alleged human rights abuses is also growing in the West. Last week, a group of British lawmakers and lawyers announced it was seeking access to the jailed female activists.
    "There are credible concerns that the conditions in which the Saudi women activists are being detained may have fallen significantly short of both international and Saudi Arabia's own standards," British MP Crispin Blunt said.

    Butairi: Not imprisoned, but not free

    One person who has remained silent is Butairi. In the months since his release, he has stayed out of the public eye. He closed his Twitter account, which had millions of followers, and declined CNN's request for comment about the couple's detainment.
    In his Twitter thread last week recalling his brief friendship with the couple, Kirk Rudell, the writer, said Butairi once told him that his wife was "much more famous" than he was in the Middle East.
    While Hathloul was getting behind the wheel and breaking the law, Butairi was co-writing the lyrics for a music video parody called "No Woman, No Drive," which was watched more than 16 million times on YouTube.
    "I expected to see them again. I expected that they would be people who I would have in my life in some way over the years, and I was excited to see what would happen for them," Rudell told CNN.
    "As I was writing this, one of the things I was thinking about is, if I see these two people again now, they will not be the same two people who I met. I can't imagine how this has changed them.
    "I don't know that Loujain (al-Hathloul) will be the same smiling, optimistic, bubbly young woman who I met, I can't imagine how she could be. As strong as she is. Who is that strong?"
    This Nov. 30, 2014 image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia.
    After Hathloul's first stint in prison -- she was jailed for 73 days in 2014 for trying to drive in the Kingdom -- Butairi was doing a stand-up routine. In a February 2017 interview with The Financial Times, he described her imprisonment as "the elephant in the room" of that performance.
    After Butairi left prison, he divorced Hathloul under circumstances that activists described to CNN as "mysterious." Two people close to the couple said that the reasons for the divorce are not known to Hathloul or her family.
      "All we know is that he divorced her, but we don't know why. Not even Loujain knows. For Loujain, she prefers to stay quiet about this, and her family is quiet about it, because they also don't understand what happened," said Saudi human rights activist Yahya Assiri.
      "Fahad has completely disappeared, and he's not imprisoned, but he's also not free," he added.