Relatives of some Saudi detainees anxiously await Biden trip

·5-min read

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH (Reuters) - Malik al-Dowaish was arrested this month following years of campaigning for the release of his father, who was himself detained in 2016 after he gave a sermon seen as critical of the Saudi Arabian royal family, two sources familiar with the matter said.

"I really don't know the secret behind my father's arrest," Dowaish said, in a video that he recorded before his arrest and seen by Reuters. "But it is very strange that he has not been tried so that a court could look at any charges that have been brought against him."

Dowaish's relatives are among hundreds of Saudis who want U.S. President Joe Biden to lobby for the release of loved ones jailed in a crackdown on dissent when he visits Washington's most important Arab ally this week.

But some relatives of detained Saudis told Reuters they fear human rights will not be on the top of his agenda when he meets Saudi leaders.

In a July 9 Washington Post commentary, Biden said his aim was to reorient and not rupture relations with Saudi Arabia, noting its energy resources were vital to soften the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on high oil supplies. However, Biden also wrote that fundamental freedoms are always "on the agenda" when he travels abroad.

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment on Dowaish's case or whether human rights will discussed with U.S. officials during Biden's visit.

Saudi officials say the kingdom does not have political prisoners. They deny human right abuses and say they are only fighting extremism, corruption and safeguarding the kingdom's national security. They have defended monitoring of activists as necessary to maintain social stability.

The White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment on Malik al-Dowaish's arrest.

ARREST

A senior U.S. administration official said Biden, in his bilateral meeting with the Saudis, is certain to "raise issues with human rights and concerns we have," but he did not cite any specific cases.

Biden had pledged to make the kingdom a "pariah" after the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by Saudi agents in 2018. U.S. intelligence implicated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, in the murder. The Saudi government has denied any involvement by him.

Dowaish's plight is part of a crackdown on dissent that has been driven by Prince Mohammed even as he has championed reforms like allowing women to drive and pushed projects to create jobs.

Dowaish's arrest came after he was questioned twice by the security services in the last year over his demand for his father's release, said the two sources familiar with his case. These sources declined to be identified for fear of retribution.

Reuters was unable to locate a lawyer for the younger Dowaish, and couldn't determine where he is being held.

His family lost contact with his father, Suleiman a-Dowaish, in 2016, several right groups have said. The father was known for links to former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN), who was replaced by MbS in a palace coup in 2017, they have previously said, without elaborating.

The Saudi government did not respond to questions about the father's links to MbN or the reason for his arrest.

U.S. CITIZENS

Lina al-Hathloul, sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, a women's rights activist who served a prison sentence and remains under a travel ban, doubts Saudi leaders will soften their positions in the wake of Biden's visit.

"Loujain is in another prison, she is monitored and she feels isolated because people are scared to be seen with her. It's a state that cannot be called freedom," she said.

There was no immediate response from Saudi government to a request for comment on Lina al-Hathloul's assertion that her sister is monitored.

As Biden's visit approached, family members of detainees in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain sent the White House letters asking Biden to press for their release, rights groups said.

Bader al-Ibrahim, an epidemiologist and journalist, and Salah al-Haidar, a media commentator whose mother Aziza al-Yousef is a women's rights campaigner, will be among the Saudi cases closely watched during Biden's trip. Both are U.S. citizens, who were freed https://www.reuters.com/article/saudi-rights-int-idUSKBN2A51IZ from jail but still banned from travel.

Referring to Ibrahim and Haidar, Biden said in his op-ed that "he will continue to push for restrictions on their travel to be lifted".

Areej al-Sadhan, a U.S. citizen, whose brother is serving a 20-year prison term, to be followed by a 20-year travel ban, handed down by a counter-terrorism court, that while the trend is for more rights abuses, there is hope detainees could be freed if Biden raises human rights in his discussions.

Abdullah al-Awdah, son of prominent Islamist preacher Salman al-Awdah who has been detained since 2017, agreed, saying his father was in worsening health and Biden's visit "is only going to help my father and other detainees if Biden wants to do so." (This story changes name to Haidar, from Yousef, in para 21)

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Michael Georgy, William Maclean)

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