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Saudi Arabia criticized by 36 countries over human rights

"The international community finally woke up," the son of a detained reforming cleric said. "This gives me hope."
Image: Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud chats with his son and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh in 2017.Reuters file

LONDON — Dozens of countries on Thursday issued a rare and stinging rebuke of Saudi Arabia's treatment of detained activists, including imprisoned women’s rights campaigners.

"We express significant concerns about reports of continuing arrests and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," according to a statement backed by a total of 36 nations — including all 28 members of the European Union.

"We are particularly concerned about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms," it added.

The statement was read at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. It also called on the absolute monarchy to cooperate with investigations into the murder in October of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The powerful young prince, who was initially hailed as a reformer intent on modernizing his country, is an important ally of President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser.

The first rebuke of the kingdom in the U.N. body's 13-year history thrust the issue of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record back into the spotlight, and comes amid growing concerns over the treatment of detained activists.

“This is a crucial opportunity for states take a strong public stand against Saudi Arabia’s dire human rights record,” said Dana Ahmed, Amnesty International’s Saudi Arabia researcher. “We hope the U.N. Human Rights Council statement will step up the diplomatic pressure on the Saudi authorities.”

While the U.S. announced it was withdrawing from the 47-member council on June 19, saying it unfairly targeted Israel, the statement still carries weight.

Among those detained are Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and U.S. resident Aziza al-Yousef, who campaigned for the right to drive in the kingdom before the ban was lifted in June. The women were held without charge from May until Friday when prosecutors accused them of trying to "undermine the Kingdom's security, stability, and national unity."

An investigation by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International claimed that authorities tortured and sexually assaulted some detainees.

Other detainees include Israa al-Ghomgham, a female activist from the minority Shiite community, and popular reforming cleric Salman al-Awda, who faces the death penalty. According to his family, al-Awda is accused of incitement against the ruler and spreading discord.

Al-Awda's son Abdullah Alaoudh says he is heartened by the pressure on the country’s rulers — especially the revulsion after Khashoggi's killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Image: Salman al-Awda
Salman al-Awda was embraced by al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and later jailed for opposing the government. He was later rehabilitated and went on to become one of the kingdom’s most popular clerics. Al-Awda has since called for greater democracy and social reform, and publicly denounced extremist violence.Lars Brundin / TT News Agency/PA

“The international community finally woke up,” said Alaoudh, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. “We really struggled before to tell the stories of Saudi Arabia and what was going on, but now it is much easier for people to understand us. This gives me hope.”

But he observed that activity in the cases involving his father and the women’s rights activists that had been paused after Khashoggi’s murder — which the CIA assessed was ordered by the crown prince — only to restart in the last week.

Renewed attention to Saudi Arabia's human rights record comes after a series of reports about the country’s guardianship system, which grants men enormous control over female relatives.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported on the case of Bethany Vierra, an American who married a Saudi and was trapped in country unable to use her bank account, travel with her young daughter or seek legal help after her divorce.

While not referring to Vierra by name, a State Department spokesperson on Tuesday said officials had “seen media reports of a U.S. citizen unable to leave Saudi Arabia with her daughter.”

“We engage with the Saudi government and all nations on these issues,” deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said.

Aside from imposing sanctions on 17 individuals over the Khashoggi case, Trump has signaled no plans to review the U.S. alliance with Riyadh, suspend arms sales or pursue more punitive measures. Instead, he has touted the importance of the relationship, citing its purchases of U.S. military hardware, its oil riches and its opposition to Iran.

This view is not shared by all in Washington.

On March 1, Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Gerald Connolly, both Virginia Democrats, called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to raise the issue of the “unjust imprisonment” of al-Yousef, a Virginia resident, and other activists.

On Wednesday, senators from both parties challenged Trump's nominee for ambassador to Saudi Arabia to hold the kingdom to account.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said he did not anticipate international pressure doing much to change Saudi behavior.

Recent key appointments made by the crown prince while his father King Salman was traveling “signal that Mohammed bin Salman remains very firmly in charge and may have been intended as a message of defiance to his international critics, including in Congress."

F. Brinley Bruton reported from London, and Abigail Williams from Washington.