It is Time to Hold Saudi Arabia Accountable on Human Rights, Jailed Activists Need Our Help
It has been 118 days since U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul at the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (knowns as "MBS"). The Saudi government also banned Khashoggi's four children, three of whom are U.S. citizens, from leaving the country. Yet the Trump Administration has refused to condemn Saudi Arabia and the President has even spouted Saudi talking points.
MBS and the Trump administration are counting on the outrage over the Khashoggi murder fading with the passage of time. While MBS may survive this battle over Khashoggi, Nicholas Kristof reminds us, however, the fight over human rights in Saudi Arabia has just begun.
In his column Sunday, Kristof stressed that while "we can't bring [Khashoggi] back . . . let's direct equal attention" to voices of conscience currently being held and tortured by the Saudi regime. Voices like Loujain al-Hathloul, a woman's rights activist who was one of 17-women activists jailed just before women were granted the right to drive in Saudi Arabia last June. For months, Hathloul has been held in solitary confinement, beaten and waterboarded in the presence of Saud al-Qahtani (a former top royal adviser until his firing due to his role in the Khashoggi murder) who threatened to rape and kill her.
MBS wants to silence Hathloul and other women activists so that the world sees his shining "reform" of allowing women to drive, but ignores the repressive system of male guardianship that requires a woman to obtain the approval of her father, husband or another male relative to travel, to work, to study and even to press charges for domestic violence. The recent cases of the two Saudi sisters who committed suicide together in New York rather than return to their families and the Saudi teen who sought asylum with Canada to avoid a forced marriage have highlighted the oppression faced by Saudi women.
Former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power noted the vivid contrast of Canada's foreign minister welcoming the teen asylum seeker at the airport during the same week that Secretary of State Pompeo flew to Riyadh to complete the MBS whitewash.
It is not just women who are being repressed under MBS. Another voice silenced is Raif Badawi, a blogger and creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals that called for greater tolerance. For this Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. In 2015, Badawi received the first 50 lashes of his sentence, but further lashes have been suspended due to his health and international outrage.
The Saudi government also has detained his sister, Samar Badawi, the recipient of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award and a leader in the women's rights movement. She is being held without charge in the same Dhahban Prison as Loujain al-Hathloul.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only major U.S. ally included in Freedom House's "worst of the worst", a collection of a dirty dozen nations with the worst rankings for human rights. The fact that the United States has a prominent ally on such a list and is doing nothing about it undercuts our global standing as a promoter of human rights.
It is time to apply pressure on the Saudi regime to respect human rights. When the Trump administration refused to condemn MBS for his role in the Khashoggi murder, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution doing just that. Now with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, it is possible that Congress could force the administration's hand on Saudi Arabia.
Congress should consider cutting off support for the Saudi's controversial war in Yemen, limiting military cooperation or even arms sales to the Saudi regime and isolate Saudi officials linked to human rights violations. This is in addition to holding hearings to expose to the free world the plight of Loujain al-Hathloul, Raif Badawi, Samar Badawi and other Saudi prisoners of conscience; and raising their detention in every Congressional delegation visit to Saudi Arabia in order to increase pressure on the Saudi regime.
As Kristof points out, "we have enormous leverage over Saudi Arabia". For Jamal Khashoggi, Loujain al-Hathloul, Raif Badawi and Samar Badawi, it is time we used it.