Families of a jailed Saudi activist and a princess call on Biden to get tough with MBS over human rights abuses which Trump ignored

Image
Detained Saudi rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul (L) and detained Saudi author and advocate Princess Basmah bint Saud (R.) MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images/Reuters
  • Families of activists detained by Saudi Arabia have called on President-elect Joe Biden to hold Mohammed bin Salman to account over human rights abuses.
  • On Wednesday, a terrorism court in Riyadh said it would seek 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence, for Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist accused of spying and sedition.
  • “We’ve seen during Biden’s campaign that the main difference in his discourse was regarding human rights,” Loujain’s sister, Lina, told Insider. “I can only hope that this will be the case.”
  • In March 2019, Princess Basmah bint Saud, an author and human rights advocate, was kidnapped and jailed without justification.
  • “I really think they [the Biden administration] should shed light about what’s happening, because it’s not ok,” a close family member told Insider.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The families of prominent women detained by Saudi Arabia are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to make good on his promise to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for human rights abuses.

During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged to rip up what he called a “dangerous blank check” handed to the Saudis by President Donald Trump, and said in November 2019 that he would make them the “pariah that they are.”

Right now, a number of high-profile women activists are jail in Saudi Arabia, amid widespread calls for their release.

Most prominent amongst them is Loujain al-Hathloul, who in May 2018 was charged with a crimes ranging from sedition to calling for the end of the repressive guardianship system. She had been arrested at a protest against a ban on women driving.

Her family denies any wrongdoing and say she has been tortured and sexually abused in detention. She is being prosecuted even though driving is now legal for women and elements of the guardianship system have been rolled back.

Al-Hathloul is currently on trial in a specialist terrorism court in Riyadh, which on Wednesday said it was pursuing the maximum sentence, which her family fears will be 20 years in jail.

Judges in Saudi Arabia have vast discretion over punishments, and al-Hathloul’s family and US politicians have called on Biden to intervene.

“We’ve seen during Biden’s campaign that the main difference in his discourse was regarding human rights,” Loujain’s sister, Lina al-Hathloul, told Insider in a recent phone call.

Demonstrator from Amnesty International holds placard outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy to protest on International Women's day to urge Saudi authorities to release jailed women's rights activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef in Paris, France, March 8, 2019. The placard reads:
An Amnesty International staffer holds a placard outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Paris, France, on March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“I can only hope that this will be the case, and that the priority for them is to urge Saudi Arabia to release the activists and to make Saudi Arabia understand that it’s just not possible for them to deal with Saudi Arabia anymore with all this pressure and when the activists are still in prison.”

“I’ll say I’m hopeful,” she said.

Representatives for the Biden transition team did not return requests for comment from Insider.

In March 2019, Princess Basmah bint Saud, a prominent human rights advocate and author, was abducted along with her daughter in Jeddah by Saudi state security agents.

She has not been seen since, but broke her silence in April 2020, tweeting to beg for mercy from King Salman and to say she was in very poor health in a Riyadh prison. Her communications were cut soon after.

Saudi basmah apartment cctv
A still from a security tape, bearing the time 11:47 p.m. on February 28, 2019, from inside Basmah’s apartment showing men believed to be Saudi state security. ABC

A close family member told Insider: “I really think they [the Biden administration] should shed light about what’s happening, because it’s not ok.”

The person asked to be anonymous to avoid retribution, but their identity is known to Insider.

“Since April, I have not received any information, nor call, nor contact… I have heard she has been hospitalized twice,” the person said.

Ronnie Goodman, an events manager who organised Princess Basmah’s public life for nearly a decade, said he would like the Biden administration to work with external agencies to secure Basmah’s freedom.

“I would like to see the Biden administration work in conjunction with Ms Agnès Callamard,” Goodman told Insider, referring to the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Callamard conducted an investigation into the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi and has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights.

Goodman said he also hopes that new Biden appointees like Susan Rice, who is to be head of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who is to be ambassador to the UN, will take up the Basmah’s cause.

Basmah MBS bin Salman Princess Saudi
Princess Basmah bint Saud (L) and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) WireImage/Reuters

“These, by the way, are all women, and with the Princess being a women herself I hope they fight for her,” he said.

A verdict on al-Hathloul’s case was expected from a Saudi judge in late November 2020, but the case was upgraded to the Specialised Criminal Court for terrorism on November 25.

Lina al-Hathloul told Insider: “I would hope this political decision was made to make the trial faster until they finally admit that after nearly three years of pre-trial detention they don’t have any evidence of their accusations and that they will release her in consequence.”

On December 12, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told Agence France-Presse that al-Hathloul is suspected of corresponding with “states unfriendly to the kingdom” and of “providing classified information.”

Among the crimes al-Hathloul is said to have committed are sending “tweets about the Women2Drive campaign” and sending “audios of her explaining the male guardianship system,” Lina al-Hathloul wrote on Twitter.

Speaking to Bloomberg in a 2018 interview, Crown Prince Mohammed said he had videos that proved al-Hathloul was spying for foreign entities.

Some US government entities have expressed concern over the charges.

“Activism on behalf of women’s rights is not a crime,” the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs wrote in a November 26 tweet.

And on December 10, Nadine Maenza, head of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said: “Saudi Arabia must cease persecution of women activists who peacefully protest the religious guardianship system.”

Throughout his term, Trump, and members of his administration, have been criticised for neglecting to hold the Saudi royal court accountable for rights abuses.

The main issues include the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, the continued war in Yemen, and the detention of state critics and rights activists.

Sarah Lee Whitsom, the executive director of DAWN, the advocacy group founded by Khashoggi, told Insider: “We’re certainly hopeful [Biden] will go beyond hollow critical rhetoric to keep his promises to end America’s ‘blank check” for abusive governments in the Middle East, to deliver accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.”