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Lawmakers urge Trump to 'personally' intervene in trial of US-Saudi national

Salah al-Haidar faces as long as 33 years in prison as he goes before court that has imprisoned rights activists, journalists, clerics and minority Shia Muslims
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Lawmakers have also urged president to intervene in case of Salah al-Haidar's mother, prominent Saudi women's rights activist Aziza al-Yousef (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

Two US lawmakers have urged President Donald Trump to personally seek the release of a US citizen who has been detained in Saudi Arabia since April 2019 over Twitter posts allegedly criticising the Saudi establishment.

US Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Gerry Connolly, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, requested on Wednesday that Trump intervene in the case of Salah al-Haidar, a Virginia resident who is set to be tried by Riyadh's counter-terrorism court on Thursday.

The 35-year-old is facing a sentence of between eight and 33 years in a court that has repeatedly imprisoned rights activists, journalists, clerics and minority Shia Muslims, including some who were given the death penalty and executed.

According to Amnesty International, a range of cases are brought before the court under broadly worded counter-terrorism laws that criminalise acts including insulting the government and "disobeying the ruler".

"We write to urge you to personally seek the immediate and unconditional release of our constituent and US citizen Mr Salah al-Haidar and to raise his case with the highest levels of the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Kaine and Connolly wrote.

"We believe this is a targeted effort against the family for their advocacy of social reforms."

The lawmakers also urged the president to intervene in the case of Haidar's mother, prominent Saudi women's rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, who is among almost a dozen women on trial for charges related to their activism, including pushing for the right to drive, before the ban on women was lifted in mid-2018.

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"The reports of egregious violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia are growing," the letter continued.

"It is clear that after facing no consequences for the gruesome assassination of Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the regime continues to act with impunity. We cannot stand for Saudi Arabia's campaign against those who bravely speak out for human rights and basic freedoms, especially if those individuals are US citizens and lawful residents."

Khashoggi, who wrote for Middle East Eye and the Washington Post, was a frequent critic of the Saudi royal family. He was killed and dismembered by Saudi government agents at the country's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, which he had visited to retrieve personal paperwork.

The CIA concluded that Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the assassination, but the White House has resisted congressional pressure to release a full report of the intelligence community's findings.

Since Khashoggi's murder, the imprisonment of the women activists and others in Saudi Arabia has drawn widespread condemnation from members of Congress, the United Kingdom's Parliament and others.

Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said whenever he engages with the Saudis he raises "the issues of Walid Fitaihi and Loujain al-Hathloul and others who have been imprisoned".

Fitaihi is an American citizen, physician and motivational speaker who was arrested without charge in 2017. He was released last year but remains under heavy restrictions, including a travel ban.

Meanwhile, Hathloul is a renowned women's rights advocate who has been detained in a Saudi jail since 2018, where she has endured torture and sexual harassment, according to her family and rights groups. Riyadh denies torturing detainees.

Representatives of a congressional delegation in Virginia, where Haidar has immediate family, are pressing the State Department to send personnel to observe his trial and to ensure transparency to the extent that the Saudis permit it, a US official told the AP news agency on Wednesday.