Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, was attempting to seek asylum in Australia last week before she was detained at the airport in Manila, Philippines and forcibly sent back to Saudi Arabia against her will.
Moudhi Aljohani, a Saudi women’s rights advocate who was in contact with Lasloom throughout her ordeal, posted videos and updates from the airport in a desperate attempt to solicit help from the international human rights community. Videos posted by eyewitnesses show Lasloom screaming for her life, insisting that the men she was with were going to either kill her or deliver her to someone who would.
“I knew when she contacted me—which was unfortunately too late because she was already detained, the Saudi embassy was already involved—I knew that this woman might be taken back and killed and silenced like hundreds of women in Saudi Arabia who have been killed for honor,” Aljohani said in an interview with Ms. “No one knows about these women, no one knows their names. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I wanted to make sure Dina’s name was out there. I didn’t want her to be killed in silence.”
Aljohani learned of the situation after being contacted by Lasloom’s friends, who begged her to help their friend detained in the Philippines airport. Aljohani knew that the situation was an emergency and got in contact with Lasloom via Snapchat. Lasloom then called Aljohani on WhatsApp using the phone of a Canadian woman named Meagan Khan, a random Good Samaritan who was also determined to help the young woman.
“Her first words to me were: ‘Moudhi please help me you are my only hope.’ She was distraught, her voice was panicky,” recalls Aljohani.
Lasloom told her that she had been with her very conservative family in Kuwait and decided to try to escape to Australia because that was one of the few countries where you could apply for visas over the Internet and didn’t need to physically go to the embassy. When she landed for her connection in Manila, there was a Saudi embassy employee waiting for her. As soon as she disembarked the plane, the Saudi official grabbed her and said she would be returned to Saudi Arabia. Philippine security officials confiscated her passport and her boarding pass. By the time Lasloom made contact with Aljohani, she had already been detained for seven hours.
“I told her listen to me, we’re going to figure something out. What you have to do now is record a video, explain what’s going on, explain about the Saudi embassy, all of that,” said Aljohani. Aljohani posted the video on Twitter and began calling organizations, the media and anyone else she thought could possibly help. The post went viral and the media contacts reached out, but then the Philippines immigration department released a full statement denying her existence in the airport even while she was being detained—blocking avenues for human rights organizations to help and for the media to report the story. The Saudi Arabian Embassy in the Philippines would later release a statement after Lasloom was successfully returned back to Saudi Arabia, confirming that she was in fact real, but that her kidnapping was nothing but a “family matter.”
After the immigration department released their statement, Khan called Aljohani to tell her that a lawyer had arrived and that Lasloom was talking to him now. Aljohani began to feel a slight sense of relief, hopeful that it might be a lawyer she had reached out to on social media. Khan’s flight was about to take off, so she bought Lasloom a sim card so that she could get into contact with Aljohani.
Seven hours later, Aljohani got a call from Lasloom. “She was screaming and told me ‘They’re going to get me back to Saudi Arabia. They just hit me. They just tortured me,’” recalled Aljohani. “And she was crying,” Lasloom said that the lawyer had lied about helping her and that he was actually sent by her family. According to Aljohani’s account of Lasloom’s story, Philippines’ security tricked her by asking very politely if she was tired and would like to have some food and sleep in another room. She said yes and they transferred her to Terminal 1, where her two uncles were waiting for her.
“She told me that they hit her so hard and grabbed her by her hair,” said Aljohani. “She said she has bruises all over her body. And this was all in sight of the Philippines’ security. They told her that they were going to take her now to Saudi Arabia. Her uncles grabbed her, but she resisted. So she told me Philippines security came and helped them grab her.”
Lasloom said people recorded her as she made a scene, screaming while they dragged her through the airport. Witnesses began to object to what was happening, so security and her uncles decided they could not yet put her on the plane. They took Lasloom to a holding room where a security guard took pity on her and gave her back her phone and sim card. She called Aljohani. She didn’t have Internet and could not record a video, so Aljohani had two other activists call Lasloom so that they could confirm the same story.
Two hours later, Lasloom disappeared. A security guard reported to Human Rights Watch that the second time they attempted to bring her to the plane, security and her uncles duck taped her mouth and tied her hands and feet to keep her from resisting. Reuters reports that several passengers confirm a woman was brought onto the plane screaming.
Adult women in Saudi Arabia are considered legal minors and are always under the guardianship of a male relative from birth until death. Guardians must give women permission to do everything from access healthcare to file a legal claim to leave the country. The Philippines is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture, meaning they have a responsibility not to return someone to an area where they will face persecution because of their gender or have a plausible risk of torture or death. At the time of Lasloom’s ordeal, the Philippine President was in Saudi Arabia for a state trip.
“If her uncles are capable of doing this, in front of the people, in front of the airport, they did not care about international law they did not care about anybody,” said Aljohani. “I cannot imagine what they would do if they were alone with her.”
According to a Saudi government official, Lasloom is currently being held in a detention facility in Saudi Arabia. Aljohani says this isn’t the first time Saudi officials have tried to hunt down women to bring them back—but other countries have recognized the autonomy of the adult women who escape the Kingdom and refuse to assist in their forcible return.
“The government doesn’t even care about people who oppose them politically as much as they care about women who escape, because those people won’t gain as much support as women,” claims Aljohani. “There’s no way somebody can deny that women in Saudi Arabia have basically no rights. The subject of women in Saudi Arabia is very sensitive for the government because it’s causing them international embarrassment.”
Aljohani herself escaped Saudi Arabia only six months ago. Every day, she receives messages from women who have seen her now public activism and know that she was able to successfully escape the Kingdom. “Everybody asks me the exact same question,” she says. “How did you run away?”
After years of trying to convince her family to let her study abroad in America, Aljohani was permitted to attend graduate school in the United States at the end of 2014. But when she returned home a year later on a one-week break, they confiscated her passport and forbid her from returning, accusing her of becoming “too Americanized.”
For eight months, she was kept under close watch. She received threats from the Saudi secret police, who told her they knew about her secret Twitter account and that she participated in human rights campaigns. In October 2016, she was able to make her escape back to the United States on a tourist visa. She applied for asylum in December and now awaits her fate.
“Dina’s story really touched me personally,” she said. “I’m still traumatized about what happened. I’m still feeling depressed because I think that I was really hopeless and I felt weak, that I could not do anything. The only thing I am doing is just getting her voice out there.”