Washington Should Challenge Riyadh Over Treatment of Women Activists

Samar Badawi, with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton (Wikimedia Commons)

by Brian Dooley

The news last Friday that Saudi Arabia will send tortured women’s rights activists to trial is another key test of U.S.-Saudi relations.

The announcement came just three days after President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The decision will raise more questions about how and why the U.S. government is propping up another repressive Middle Eastern dictator.

The war in Yementhe murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reports of the torture of American citizen Walid Fitaihi, and now the prosecution of women activists: these are prompting renewed questions about why the United States remains on the side of the Gulf’s repressive monarchs.

Prosecuting the activists is another indefensible move by the Saudi authorities. About a dozen activists remain in custody, and so far it’s unclear which of them will be brought to trial.

Last May, Saudi officials began to arrest activists who had been campaigning for women’s right to drive in the kingdom.

Those arrested also had a long record of fighting for other rights, including against domestic violence and Saudi Arabia’s repressive guardianship laws. A few years ago, I spoke at an event with one of the detainees, Samar Badawi, at the United Nations Human Rights Council. She detailed then how anti-terrorism laws targeted activists. She was arrested in July 2018 with fellow activist Nassima al-Sada. Other women activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Maya’a al-Zahrani, had already been detained.

Al-Hathloul told her family that she had been beaten, abused, sexually harassed, waterboarded, and electrocuted. During a visit to her in jail, her parents saw how bruises had turned her thighs black. She has been a prominent voice in pushing for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, as has Eman Alnafjan, who—unable to drive herself—repeatedly accompanied women who defied the driving ban, putting herself in repeated danger.

Those close to the activists in jail told me that some of them had been forced last week to sign a request to Saudi’s king asking for a pardon. It’s a possible indication towards releasing them, but there have been such false dawns before.

Meanwhile, Washington’s response to Saudi Arabia’s violent repression seems to be moving beyond traditional indifference and hand-wringing.

Congressional voices are asserting a new confidence, asking the awkward questions about why another U.S. administration is cozying up to the Saudi monarch. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that last month’s House vote to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen showed “Congress reclaiming its role in foreign policy.”

Members of Congress have taken up several of the detained Saudi activist cases for individual advocacy under the Defending Freedoms Project, but much more is needed. In the Senate this week, the Foreign Relations Committee has a chance to question General John P. Abizaid during his hearing to become ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Senators should press him on what he intends to do, if confirmed, about the women activists and other human rights issues.

As these trials develop, the coming weeks should offer more opportunities for Congress to define where the U.S. government stands on these cases and more broadly how the United States should react when its repressive allies abuse human rights.

But what the White House should be doing right now is publicly demanding that the Saudi authorities release the women and punish their torturers or else face serious consequences. It’s past time for a radical overhaul of U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf.

Brian Dooley is a senior advisor with Human Rights First.

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