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'Ruthless gangster': US lawmakers slam MBS for detaining Saudi activists

Brother of women's rights advocate Loujain al-Hathloul says she has been tortured and sexually harassed
Walid al-Hathloul, left, and Ahmad Fitaihi talk about their relatives' ordeals in Saudi prisons (MEE/Ali Harb)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Saudi Arabia's rulers are behaving like a "criminal enterprise", Senator Patrick Leahy said at a meeting of lawmakers and activists calling on Riyadh to release political prisoners and women's rights activists.

At a panel in Washington on Thursday, relatives of Saudi detainees Loujain al-Hathloul and Dr Walid Fitaihi described reports of torture and lack of accountability or prospects of a fair trial for their imprisoned family members.

Several women's rights activists, including Hathloul, had appeared in Saudi courts a day earlier to face charges of seeking to undermine the kingdom's "security, stability, and national unity".

Their prosecution has cast a shadow over the drive of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to portray himself as a reformer attempting to challenge the conservative norms of Saudi society and grant more rights to women.

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"He's no reformer; he's an impulsive, ruthless gangster," Leahy said of the crown prince, also known as MBS.

Not a criminal

For his part, Walid al-Hathloul said his sister, Loujain, had always been driven by the passion to help less fortunate women.

Charges against the activist, he said, stem from seemingly innocuous activities, including applying for a job at the United Nations and speaking to foreign journalists.

"Considering that Saudi officials are always appearing in Western media, I can't imagine this is a crime, either," he said at the event.

Women's rights advocates should have been welcomed as allies in the push to modernise the kingdom, instead of being thrown in prison, Hathloul said.

"This is incompatible with what Saudi Arabia wants. Loujain is not a criminal. In fact, she is one of the best people I know," he added.

Loujain was arrested last year along with other women's rights advocates, including Eman al-Nafjan and Nouf Abdulaziz.

Late in 2018, rights revealed that several prisoners, including Loujain, had been tortured and sexually harassed in detention.

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Walid Hathloul is based in Toronto and says he is not interested in politics, but after remaining silent for months, the Saudi government's refusal to answer the family's inquiries has forced him to speak out. "We are left with no other options, to be honest."

MBS top aide Saud al-Qahtani, who is suspected orchestrating the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at times personally oversaw the torture of Loujain, according to Hathloul.

"There was one time when Loujain was being electrocuted, and he stood there laughing as she was screaming in pain," the brother said.

"He has threatened to rape her, kill her and have her body cut into pieces and then thrown into the sewage system."

Hathloul did not reveal the source of his information on Thursday, but his testimony corroborates reports by human rights groups and Western media outlets.

The women's activists' detention and subsequent reports of abuse gained increased attention after the murder of Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi government agents at the country's consulate in Istanbul last October.

The crime prompted lawmakers to call on President Donald Trump to press the kingdom on human rights, but the White House has remained unwavering in its steadfast support of MBS.

Fitaihi case

On Thursday, activists also called for the release of Dr Fitaihi, a Saudi-American physician and author who was arrested late in 2017 in a supposed anti-corruption sweep seen by critics as a drive to silence and subdue the crown prince's opponents.

Ahmad Fitaihi, the doctor's son, said his father, who is yet to face any formal charges, had not committed any crimes and was a caring Saudi patriot.

"This whole situation of my father in prison really doesn't make any sense whatsoever," Ahmad said at the event on Thursday.

'Over and over and over and over again, the Saudi regime has demonstrated medieval brutality and disregard for basic human rights'

-Congressman Jim McGovern

"We're talking about the most law-abiding citizen you'll ever meet. He's never done as much as a parking ticket. He's devoted his entire life to the betterment of people around him."

As reports emerged that Fitaihi had been tortured in detention, US lawmakers and advocates have been calling on the Trump administration to push for the doctor's release.

Congressman Jim McGovern said on Thursday that Fitaihi's case is especially upsetting because it is not unique; many other detainees have been abused and held without charges.

"Over and over and over and over again, the Saudi regime has demonstrated medieval brutality and disregard for basic human rights," McGovern said on Thursday as he called for the release of Hathloul and Fitaihi.

On Thursday, Hathloul and two other Saudi women's rights activists were named as the recipients of the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, an honour dedicated annually to writers imprisoned for their work.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, an anti-war feminist organisation, told MEE that the crackdown on women's rights defenders is "tearing away" at the myth that Saudi Arabia is becoming more tolerant under the crown prince.  

"It's garbage; it's just lies; it's a cover-up; it's smoke screen. It's a way to try to pretend that things are changing in Saudi Arabia, so it's OK to sell them weapons and OK to do business with them," Benjamin said of the depiction of bin Salman as a reformer.

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