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April 11, 2019

Trump Clings to MBS as Saudi Arabia Targets Americans

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to sanction all senior Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens. The legislation would bar the officials from travel to the United States and freeze their U.S. dollar-denominated assets.

But Turkey isn’t the only U.S. ally that locks up Americans or U.S. residents when doing so suits its leaders.

Despite President Trump’s claims that Saudi Arabia has “been a great ally to me,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 33-year-old de facto ruler, launched crackdowns that resulted in the arrest and jailing of several American citizens. For example, Walid Fitaihi, a U.S. citizen and Harvard-trained doctor, has been held without charges for a year and a half and repeatedly tortured, according to his relatives. Overshadowed by MBS’s other brutal acts, from orchestrating a disastrous war in Yemen to likely ordering the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi’s detention of Americans deserves closer scrutiny.

Aziza Al-Youssef, one of the women’s rights activists on trial for unspecified “crimes” related to civil rights advocacy, is a U.S. legal permanent resident and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. Last month, Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to call for the immediate release Al-Youssef and other “unjustly detained women’s rights activists.”

Those include Samar Badawi, who in 2012 was named as an International Women of Courage by the State Department. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Badawi with the award, which “recognizes women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women's rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.”

The trial of Al-Youssef and ten other women’s rights activists began on March 13. At the second hearing, on March 27, the women testified that they were tortured with electric shocks by masked men and sexually harassed during the investigation. Foreign reporters and diplomats were not allowed into the court.

At the end of the hearing, Aziza Al-Youssef was released, along with two others, though they remain on trial. Authorities set the next hearing and possible verdict for some of the defendants for next Wednesday, April 17.

This month, Saudi authorities have arrested at least 13 more activists, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, including Aziza Al- Youssef’s son, Salah al-Haider. Al-Haider is a U.S. citizen, as is Bader el-Ibrahim, who was also arrested. El-Ibrahim is a physician and writer who has written about democracy and sectarianism in Saudi Arabia, where the minority Shia population experience discrimination.

Jamal Khashoggi’s close ties to the United States didn’t save him from being murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi was a legal permanent resident of the United States and a regular contributor to the Washington Post. But according to the CIA, he was lured to the embassy and killed on the orders of MBS.

Like Khashoggi, Saudi human rights defender Mohamed Al-Qahtani was educated in Indiana. Khashoggi attended Indiana State University from 1977 to 1982, earning a degree in business administration in May 1983. Al-Qahtani received a Ph.D. in economics from Indiana University in 2002. His wife Maha is a legal permanent resident, and their four children are U.S. citizens. He’s serving a 10-year jail sentence at Al-Ha'ir criminal prison, near Riyadh.

Arrested in June 2012, before MBS took power, he faced 12 charges, all related to his peaceful human rights work, including "refusing to submit to the will of the King," "inciting public disorder," and "communicating with foreign entities." Maha says that when he was sentenced, the judge looked apologetically at Mohammad’s lawyers and said, ‘I am sorry, the verdict came from above, not from me.’” 

Al-Qahtani co-founded Saudi’s Association for Civil Rights and Political Rights (ACPRA) to report on human rights violations and help families of detainees held without charge or trial to bring cases against the Ministry of Interior before an administrative court. Today, 10 of ACPRA’s 11 founding members are serving lengthy prison sentences, are on trial, or have been sentenced and await detention.

Al-Qahtani was awarded the prestigious 2018 Right Livelihood Award, along with fellow jailed Saudi activists Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid and Waleed Abu Al-Khair.

Al-Qahtani has gone on hunger strike five times to protest prison conditions. Sources in the prison tell me he’s detained alongside murderers and other violent criminals in Ward 14, an especially harsh part of the prison where drugs are rife. Last week someone put sedatives in the water that Ward 14 prisoners use to make coffee. Although authorities monitor the prison via closed-circuit television cameras, no one has been brought to account for drugging the inmates.

Al-Qahtani and the other rights activists—both those with U.S. ties and those without—shouldn’t be in prison in the first place. Members of Congress are focusing on Americans wrongly imprisoned in Turkey—a welcome development. They should take a look at Saudi Arabia next.