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House Democrats demand probe into partner countries targeting US-based dissidents

Members of US Congress issue concerns over Saudi Arabia and Egypt's campaign of transnational repression in US
At least 26 family members of US-based persons were held in detention in 2020 in Egypt, according to the Freedom Initiative.
At least 26 family members of US-based persons were held in detention in 2020 in Egypt, according to the Freedom Initiative (AFP/File photo)
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A dozen House Democrats have called on the State Department to review whether countries that receive US weapons, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are involved in the harassment and intimidation of dissidents on American soil.

In a letter which was shared with Middle East Eye, the lawmakers demand that the Government Accountability Office conduct a review of whether any countries are in violation of a US law that prohibits Washington from selling arms to nations that show a "consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment directed against individuals in the United States".

"We write you amid a growing trend of the extraterritorial persecution, intimidation, and censorship of US citizens, legal permanent residents, and others residing in the US face at the hands of US partners around the world," read the letter, led by Congressman Tom Malinowski, who co-chairs the House's Egypt Human Rights Caucus.

"Multiple countries who benefit from Foreign Military Sales, Foreign Military Financing, and other arms purchases from the United States, including the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a pattern of intimidation and harassment," it said, adding that other countries such as Turkey and Rwanda are engaging in similar campaigns.

The letter comes amid a diplomatic ebb between Washington and Riyadh, where Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly declined a call with US President Biden earlier this month when oil prices were surging to record highs.

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It also comes as the US administration is looking to go forward with a sale of F-15 fighter jets to Egypt, which America's top general for forces in the Middle East appeared to confirm on Tuesday.

Transnational repression

Numerous reports over the past several years have highlighted how both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have conducted campaigns to target dissidents living in the US.

A study published by The Freedom Initiative last year found that Cairo was detaining the family members of critics living in the US as a means of reprisal for their vocal criticism of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government.

At least 26 family members of US-based persons were held in detention in 2020 in Egypt, according to the prisoner rights organisation.

Egypt's transnational repression campaign also physically extended to US soil on multiple occasions.

In Saudi Arabia, US citizens continue to be detained, banned from travel in 2021
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Last July during a visit to Washington, Egypt's spy chief Abbas Kamel claimed that Washington had agreed to jail prominent Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan after he was released from prison in Egypt and sent to the US.

Then in January, a man was arrested in New York for allegedly working as a foreign agent of the Egyptian government. According to the Justice Department, he was accused of having "tracked and obtained information regarding political opponents of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi".

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was named by the US-based watchdog Freedom House as one of the leading countries practising transnational repression, most notably with the 2018 murder of MEE and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Since coming to power in 2015, MBS has attempted to reform the image of the ultra-conservative kingdom to the western world, but at the same time, he has intensified a crackdown on human rights activists and political dissidents.

The congressional letter noted that throughout 2020 and 2021, there have been at least 18 American citizens or their family members "wrongfully detained or forcibly disappeared" in Saudi Arabia".

One report published last October found that at least 89 United States citizens, legal permanent residents, visa holders and their relatives were detained by authorities in Saudi Arabia or banned from leaving the country in 2021.

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