Public pressure from the family of a Saudi women’s rights activist who was jailed is emboldening the relatives of other detainees to speak out, swelling the ranks of critics of Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman’s
crackdown on perceived opponents.
In 2018, Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned on women’s issues and had fought Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, was arrested. It came just months before the curb was lifted as part of social reforms implemented by Prince Mohammed, known as MBS.
Ms. Hathloul’s family initially stayed quiet after her arrest, hoping for a private resolution. But in 2019 they began speaking out, after she told them she had been tortured in a secret prison by a royal adviser and only escaped rape because one captor intervened.
A Saudi official dismissed allegations that Ms. Hathloul and other detainees had been tortured, cut off from their families or held without trial.
“The judiciary in the Kingdom is independent and any person who violates the law will be held accountable and will be provided with their full rights,” the official said.
Cable television appearances by Ms. Hathloul’s family and opinion pieces in American and British newspapers elevated her profile; President Biden praised her release on parol in February. Her siblings said that pledges she had to sign before leaving prison had muzzled her, but that they were maintaining pressure from overseas.
They are a core part of a new group of activists who are leveraging international media and lobbying Western governments to try to influence policy in Riyadh. Many were previously apolitical, but no longer see value in navigating government backchannels to extricate loved ones. Since 2017, at least 10 people who have had family members detained have become activists, according to a Wall Street Journal tally. Most of the new activists live in relative safety abroad.
“When we realized that our silence led nowhere, we decided to speak, louder and louder every day,” said Ms. Hathloul’s brother, Walid al-Hathloul, who lives in Toronto.
After entering the line of succession six years ago, MBS suppressed outspoken voices in local newspapers and on social media. Starting in 2017, he launched waves of arrests targeting conservative clerics, women’s rights activists and intellectuals who criticized economic or foreign policy.
Activists say he closed off traditional avenues for negotiating detainees’ releases. The 2018 killing of former royal insider Jamal Khashoggi, who lambasted the prince in Washington Post columns, invigorated Saudis previously cowed into silence. A U.S. intelligence report implicated MBS, who has denied he ordered the killing but said he took ultimate responsibility as the kingdom’s de facto leader.
After steadfast support from the Trump administration, Mr. Biden has set about revamping policy toward Saudi Arabia, though MBS has said there is agreement “on more than 90%” of bilateral issues. Mr. Biden has ordered a review of relations with the kingdom that includes arms sales, the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and an assessment of whether the U.S. has done enough to hold Saudi officials responsible for the Khashoggi killing.
The Saudi Specialized Criminal Court released Ms. Hathloul weeks into the Biden administration, after convicting her in December on terrorism-related charges in a closed-door trial. These days, her siblings face online harassment, including misogynistic and racist attacks.
The siblings continue to speak out on behalf of Ms. Hathloul and other detainees, like Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a U.S.-educated aid worker snatched by unidentified men from his Riyadh office in 2018. It took his family weeks to confirm that security forces were holding him. They later received reports of torture from relatives of detainees held with him.
After a year’s silence, Mr. Sadhan’s sister, Areej al-Sadhan, living in California, spoke to a British newspaper. She said the decision to go public was precipitated by Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and the torture allegations presented by Ms. Hathloul’s family.
“All the doors were closing in our faces,” she said.
A year after Ms. Sadhan spoke to the newspaper, her brother called home for the first time. He was sentenced in April to 20 years in prison, plus a further 20-year travel bank.
The only evidence presented in his closed-door trial, Mr. Sadhan said, according to his sister, was tweets critical of the government that he allegedly published from an account satirizing Islamist extremists.
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A court document seen by the Journal showed he was convicted of terrorist financing, supporting Islamic State and inciting violence against foreign soldiers.
The Saudi official said Mr. Sadhan had admitted in court that he believed in the ideas outlined on his
account, and had confessed to supporting terrorism. The official said Mr. Sadhan had been allowed family visits and phone calls since his arrest, but refused to communicate with them until recently “on the pretext that he did not want them to know that he was arrested for a terrorism-related case.”
Ms. Sadhan said her family was told previously that her brother wasn’t allowed calls or visits while under investigation. She denied the accusations against him, saying the court had ignored his rebuttals and legal defense, and accused the government of using terrorism as a catchall accusation for any public criticism.
After she began speaking publicly, other Saudis sought her help getting their own relatives out of prison. She is considering a new career in human rights law to try to press changes to Saudi Arabia’s legal system.
Her apparent success in securing a phone call from her brother is what pushed Malik al-Dweish to discuss his father’s case with the Journal from inside Saudi Arabia, despite the risk of retribution.
“I see the result of silence and the result of speaking,” said Mr. Dweish. “When someone gets attention, it scares them.”
His father, a Muslim cleric called Suleiman al-Dweish, had links to MBS’s predecessor, former Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Nayef,
who was ousted in 2017 and detained last year for allegedly plotting a coup.
Malik al-Dweish said his father was taken from a Mecca hotel in 2016 after tweeting a sermon that appeared to insult MBS with an allegory of an insolent child spoiled by his father.
The younger Mr. Dweish said he pursued the case through high-level security and royal family contacts, without success. The authorities told him his father had gone to Syria to join Islamic State. He said he was unconvinced as his father’s passport remained in his possession.
After seeing how the cases of Ms. Hathloul and Mr. Sadhan progressed following media coverage, Mr. Dweish decided to break his silence too. He recounted how government contacts and families of other detainees said his father had been imprisoned in a palace dungeon and beaten on the orders of the prince.
The Saudi official said claims about the older Mr. Dweish’s detention were baseless and that unnamed intelligence sources indicated he had been smuggled out of the country illegally: “His whereabouts are currently unknown and available information indicates he joined an extremist group in Syria.”
Like Malik al-Dweish, Abdulhakim al-Dukheil was motivated by the public stances struck by other relatives of detainees to speak out. His father, a former senior finance ministry official called Abdulaziz al-Dukheil, was arrested last year after tweeting condolences for a deceased human rights activist.
Abdulhakim al-Dukheil, who lives in France, wrote in USA Today in March that he stayed silent for months believing it would expedite his father’s release, but that the time had come for him to join other Saudis calling for their relatives’ freedom. He has since established an organization in the U.S. to help finance legal costs for detainees’ families.
The Saudi official said the older Mr. Dukheil was arrested for committing an unspecified crime and sentenced to 14 months in prison, but could be released within a month. He said the younger Mr. Dukheil was “an imposter…who is posing” as the former finance ministry official’s son.
Abdulhakim al-Dukheil said he was the only son of Abdulaziz al-Dukheil’s second wife. Other family members couldn’t be reached.
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