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Coronavirus: Families of Palestinians in Saudi prisons plead for their release

At least 68 Palestinian and Jordanian citizens are being held in four prisons across Saudi Arabia
A protest organised in the besieged Gaza Strip by families of detainees in Saudi prisons in December 2019 (MEE/Adam Khalil)
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Gaza City

The families of dozens of Palestinians and Jordanians who are languishing in jails across Saudi Arabia have pleaded with the kingdom to have them released, citing the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to multiple sources, at least 68 Palestinian and Jordanian citizens are being kept in four prisons across Saudi Arabia over charges of having ties with Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

Families of the detainees, some of whom are in their 80s, have told Middle East Eye that the accused have been denied access to lawyers and visitation rights, and authorities have recently begun reducing phone call access.

'We are very concerned in light of the spread of the coronavirus. Saudi authorities must release them before a tragedy occurs'

- Muhammad al-Akkad

Meanwhile, sources within Hamas leadership have told MEE that in their most recent court appearance, the detainees stood trial in hastily arranged hearings in groups of five.

According to one source, the charges against the accused ranged from the bizarre to the indefensible.

One person is accused of possessing bottles of Palestinian olive oil, a second is being charged with sending sheep to people in Gaza for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and a third is accused of possessing a book on the history of Palestine by Kuwaiti writer Tareq al-Suwaidan.

Umm Qusai al-Haddad, who was born in Saudi Arabia but now lives in Gaza City, said she feared for the safety of her father Suleiman, 67, and her two brothers, Yahya, 40, and Muhammad, 38, all of whom have been in detention since 2018.

She told MEE that Saudi authorities had repeatedly withheld information from the family, including their recent court session on 8 March.

"We learned about the trial from the opposition Saudi pages [Facebook and Twitter accounts], and my mother called the criminal court and checked if it was true."

Dire conditions

According to Umm Qusai, the lack of transparency from Saudi authorities has been a constant feature since their arrest.

She said that since her father and siblings were forcibly disappeared on 11 March 2018, authorities have repeatedly restricted communications between the family.

"About a week after their arrest, my mother received something known as a reassurance call, but then they disappeared for three or four months," she said.

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When Umm Qusai's mother was finally allowed to see her husband in the kingdom's al-Haair prison, he told her that he had not seen their two sons and that Saudi authorities had placed him in solitary confinement.

After that visit, communication was completely cut off for about a year, Umm Qusai said. After that, telephone calls and visits were arranged at different intervals. 

According to the family, Saudi authorities decided to cut off visits a few days ago, citing the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Since their last court appearance, Umm Qusai said human rights organisations have been reporting on the torture of some detainees, and suspected coronavirus cases at one of the prisons.

Also among those arrested is Muhammed al-Khoudary, 82, who managed Hamas' relationship with Saudi Arabia for about two decades.

Abdul Majed, Khoudary's brother, told MEE that conditions in the prison were dire, with his brother's cancer taking a turn for the worse.

"Because of the lack of transparency of the Saudi authorities, we no longer have any options other than to go to the European judiciary, and to invite international human rights organisations to follow up on the case," said Abdul Majed, who lives in the besieged Gaza Strip.

A change in relations

According to Abdul Majed, the Saudi Criminal Court accused Muhammed al-Khoudary, who was arrested along with his son Hani, of belonging to and financing terrorist entities.

Meanwhile, his son Hani, a lecturer at Umm Al-Qura University, is accused of covering up information about his father's work.

According to Abdul Majed, his brother retired 10 years ago and worked in an official capacity as representative of Hamas. Saudi intelligence even allowed him to open the group’s offices in the city of Jeddah.

Hamas was established in 1987 and is generally viewed in the Arab world as a legitimate resistance movement against Israel’s occupation of Palestinians lands.

A number of its founders and close associates have lived in the Gulf kingdom where large donation campaigns were launched for the movement, some with official Saudi blessings.

But the kingdom's relationship with the Gaza-based faction appears to have soured since the election of US President Donald Trump, a staunch supporter of Israel, and the emergence of Mohammed bin Salman as Saudi Arabia's crown prince.

'Absolutely no communication'

In May 2017, during an Arab-American summit held in Riyadh, Trump called Hamas a terrorist group. About one year later, in February 2018, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir followed suit, a move Hamas denounced at the time as a dangerous precedent.

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Also among those charged with having ties to Hamas are three members of the Akkad family from Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

Muhammad al-Akkad, who is a cousin of the three prisoners, said they had been barred from speaking with their families.

"There is absolutely no communication with them. We hear accusations against them from the media, including belonging to terrorist entities - and by that they mean the Palestinian resistance factions - and we were stunned by these charges, especially since they were born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for decades."

He said the family was deeply concerned by a spike in cases of the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia announced 38 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total number of infected persons to 171.

The outbreak of the disease was labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organisation last week as the worldwide death toll from the virus continues to grow. Total cases have surpassed 179,000 across 136 countries. 

"We are very concerned in light of the spread of the coronavirus. Saudi authorities must release them before a tragedy occurs," Akkad said.