Saudi Arabia, the controversial ally to western democracies, has just detained several U.S. citizens in a coordinated crackdown against dissenting political activists and journalists, according to an investigative report a human rights group released earlier this week. The arrests were later confirmed by officials within the State Department (DOS) who released a statement on the matter.
“We can confirm that two US citizens were arrested in Saudi Arabia,” the DOS official told CNN. “We have already engaged the Saudi government in this regard. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
The kingdom has currently detained eleven activists, including two dual citizens of both Saudi Arabia and the United States, who remain on trial for both women’s rights advocacy relating to the right to drive and abolishing of the country’s pervasive male guardianship system, as well as the questionable crimes such as communicating with foreign journalists and overseas human rights groups “hostile to Saudi Arabia”.
When the kingdom’s prosecutors unveiled the indictments against their newly branded “traitors”, the charges were “almost entirely” related to activism itself, according to Human Rights Watch sources for The Washington Post and a Saudi whistleblower who spoke with The New York Times. Although the ban on female driving was famously lifted by the kingdom just last year, all of the charges remain present seemingly as a tool for the theocratic regime to crackdown against their problematic critics.
One of the dual citizens, journalist Salah al-Haidar, was temporarily released from custody alongside two other feminist activists due to the “harsh international scrutiny” on the matter. The other dual citizen, Bader al-Ibrahim, remains in detainment with the others. The Post reports the decision to release some of the activists came after the defendants appeared in a Riyadh court during the second hearing in their case. The “emotional testimonies” detailed abuses within the prisons by the hands of Saudi authorities.
This is consistent with a separate medical report verified by The Guardian which is currently being prepared for the country’s ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, revealing prisoners suffer under inhumane conditions such as malnutrition, cuts, bruises, and burns. Keep in mind these arrests were only during the last two weeks. It’s being reported once the report has been finalized, medical staff will request the kingdom either draft “a potential pardon for all the prisoners, or at least early release for those with serious health problems”. Don’t hold your breath on whether we’ll hear statements from those staffers ever again if things go south.
The American fallout after such Saudi authoritarianism has been quite disappointing. While a bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding the release of these citizens, including an unrelated prisoner like Dr. Walid Fitaihi, a dual citizen held in captivity without specific charges or trial, President Trump has failed to address the faults of his foreign allies. The closest example of pushback came after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist who raised his children as dual citizens, where the president only briefly mentioned foul play.
“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event,” President Trump wrote in a statement in November. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.” This statement only remains true if he were to ignore the reports US intelligence assets who specifically pointed the finger at the regime. Could it be his notorious conflicts of interests? Such as the $270,000 emoluments Trump accepted through his DC hotel? Or signing of the controversial $110 billion weapons deal? Or the 18 businesses he holds within the region? Or are there more important issues than foreign dictators?
Only government officials outside the White House have actually addressed the issue head-on. The DOS recently sanctioned 17 Saudis suspected of aiding the assassination plot against Khashoggi. Despite knowing those official will never serve a day in the United States court system, it’s at the very least symbolized opposition to authoritarianism. Congress also officially passed a war resolution calling for an end to American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which Trump has signaled towards vetoing. A reactionary mind could easily say the harm there is only being directed towards foreign citizens, keeping ethical questions out of sight and out of mind as the president continues intervention.
These arrests, however, can’t be ignored. If the president is a true defender of American free speech, shown to be an area of interest with his recent executive order, the administration should push back against Saudi Arabia too. It’s easy for the government to sanction college campuses for restrictions on speech, where the landscape involves MAGA devotees assaulted by leftists, but it’s another thing to sanction countries for behavior against US citizens on the grand international stage. The government can’t stand with Saudi Arabia and MBS through both war and censorship — not without admitting it abandoned the values and lives of American values, at least.
“[Fahd al-Sunaidi] is not someone who really stirred the pot in terms of the topics he covered,” said Justin Shilad, research associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists, speaking to The Guardian about the current detainees. “The fact that he is also in detention for no discernible reason, the fact that he was not known as a controversial figure, it really demonstrates the totality of Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on press freedom, on independent journalism or any commentary that smacks of a critical or independent nature. In terms of researching Saudi Arabia [and political detentions], the cone of silence is not like anything I have ever seen, and I have researched Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq … The level of fear, intimidation and all round silencing of information, it is beyond what we see in the war zones in the region where you have the Islamic State operating.”
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