Criminal trials began in Saudi Arabia last week for 10 women’s rights activists facing spurious charges of aiding an enemy country. The trials come at a time of acute strain in the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh’s human rights record, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Since last May, Saudi Arabia has detained several high-profile activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef, who fought against the ban on women driving; Eman al-Nafjan, who blogged about women’s repression in the kingdom; and Samar Badawi, who fought to eliminate the kingdom’s male guardianship system. Samar Badawi is the sister of blogger Raif Badawi, whom Riyadh imprisoned in 2012 for criticizing the regime.
The controversy goes beyond the detainment of these figures. Human rights groups and al-Hathloul’s family have said that the detainees endured torture before the trial, including electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, and sexual harassment. Saudi authorities have also denied the defendants access to a lawyer and barred Western diplomats and journalists from attending the tribunal.
Media reports have noted that in the days before the trial, Saudi authorities coerced some of the activists, among them al-Hathloul, into signing requests for a royal pardon from King Salman. This could indicate that the regime seeks to retain the option of a face-saving exit from the controversy, which has placed Riyadh squarely in the crosshairs of an already aggravated U.S. Congress.
On March 13, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to end American military assistance for Saudi-led operations in Yemen, due primarily to the high civilian death toll in the Saudi military campaign. One month prior, senators introduced a bill that would block certain arms sales to the kingdom and sanction those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. In January, the House introduced a bill to halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
At the recent hearing, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) both said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had gone “full gangster.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) noted that Riyadh’s roster of human rights violations was “so long, it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on there.”
While Congress is clearly conveying a sense of urgency, U.S. efforts to push for reform in Saudi Arabia are inconsistent. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised the plight of the activists with Saudi leaders, President Trump appears disengaged, focusing more on the important role that Saudi Arabia might play in isolating Iran. To date, the Trump administration’s sanctions against 17 Saudis who played a role in the Khashoggi murder appear to be the only tangible step it has taken to address Riyadh’s human rights abuses.
While the isolation of Iran remains a crucial foreign policy objective, President Trump must raise the issue of human rights with Saudi leaders, calling for an immediate halt to the controversial trials and for the unconditional release of all detained activists. If no progress is made, the administration should consider applying Global Magnitsky sanctions to the Saudi officials responsible. If the defendant’s allegations of torture prove credible, Global Magnitsky sanctions would likewise be appropriate.
At the same time, the administration should pressure Saudi Arabia to release other political prisoners, including Raif Badawi, who has been imprisoned for nearly seven years and publicly flogged for criticizing the government online.
The message from Washington must be clear: Saudi Arabia needs to make meaningful progress in the area of human rights. If it does not, other vital aspects of U.S.-Saudi ties risk collateral damage.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP. Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.