Published in the New York Times, December 30, 2020
President-elect Joe Biden must push the country to release its political prisoners.
On Monday, a court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, sentenced Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi activist, to five years and eight months in prison. Ms. al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right of women to drive, was convicted of "trying to harm national security" and advancing "a foreign agenda." She has already been in prison for two and a half years. A combination of time served and partial sentence suspension could lead to her release in a month or so.
Ms. al-Hathloul's case has attracted international attention and condemnation from United Nations human rights experts, the U.S. House of Representatives and numerous rights organizations. Rightly so. But there are hundreds of other political prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have been similarly arrested, imprisoned and put on trial.
My father is one of them. On Nov. 18, my siblings hugged my father in the same Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh that sentenced Ms. al-Hathloul. My family could neither visit him in his Saudi prison nor receive a phone call between May and late September, when they were allowed to speak with him, a glass barrier between them. That much-needed hug came after six months.
My father, Salman Aloudah, is a 63-year-old reformist scholar of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, who has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest on Sept. 10, 2017. Disturbed by increasing regional tensions after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, my father obliquely expressed his desire for reconciliation in a tweet. A few hours later, he was taken into custody.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, my father was a high-profile supporter of the petition signed by thousands of Saudis demanding a national transition toward a constitutional monarchy with elections, basic liberties and democratic institutions. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who ruled from 2005 until his death in January 2015, allowed the Saudis to speak out to some extent and make some demands because the kingdom was keen to avoid public unrest. My father was banned from traveling outside Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, when Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz — now King Salman — was already the crown prince and Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been named head of his court, with the rank of minister, my father urged the Saudi government to release several reformists, who founded the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights. The activists had been arrested and convicted on broad charges of trying to "distort the reputation of the kingdom," "breaking all allegiance with the ruler" and "setting up an unlicensed organization." My dad's calls were ignored, but there was no retribution.
Around that time, Crown Prince Salman introduced Prince Mohammed, his young son, to various influential public figures in Saudi Arabia who were talking about reforms. Crown Prince Salman and Prince Mohammed met my father and sought his advice on the nuanced process of political reform.
In 2015, after King Salman succeeded King Abdullah, my father wanted to remind the king of his promise of reforms in Saudi Arabia. While appearing on Saudi national television, my father recounted how Crown Prince Salman had told him that political reforms and rights which my father long championed would be at the top of his agenda when he became king.
Three months after King Salman took over, his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced the Saudi Vision 2030, which promised social and economic reforms. Two years later, in 2017, when Prince Mohammed was appointed crown prince, our hopes of political reforms or greater civil rights turned out to be a mirage.
Prince Mohammed, who is known as M.B.S., established his authority through crackdowns on competitors among the vast royal family; the space for dissent was obliterated; the kingdom was involved in the war in Yemen, led the blockade of Qatar and my father was arrested over a tweet.
During the Nov. 18 court proceeding in Riyadh, my siblings were struck by how significantly weaker and emaciated our father was. Having lost half of his hearing and vision in prison, he was incoherent and had difficulty hearing and seeing them clearly. They felt that our proud, determined father seemed completely submissive and nodded at whatever he was told. They feared that in his precarious state, he could be forced into signing any kind of confession.
My father's physical and mental decline has accelerated over three years of abuse and isolation. During the first three to five months of his detention, in Dhahban prison in Jeddah, guards shackled his feet with chains and blindfolded him while moving him between interrogation rooms and his cell. Interrogators deprived him of sleep and medication for many days in succession, he told our family during visits.
On one occasion, the guards threw a plastic bag of food at him without removing his handcuffs. He was forced to open the bag and remove the food with his mouth, causing considerable damage to his teeth. Following this prolonged mistreatment, in January 2018, he was hospitalized for a few days for dangerously high blood pressure.
Medical negligence and malpractice are common in Saudi prisons. In April 2020, the Saudi government was responsible for the mistreatment and eventual death of Abdullah al-Hamid, one of the most prominent reformers in the Kingdom, who collapsed and slipped into a coma while in prison. For weeks, Saudi authorities denied Mr. al-Hamid a long-overdue cardiac catheterization. He collapsed on the floor of al-Ha'ir Prison in Riyadh and lay there for hours before the authorities took him to al-Shumaisi hospital, his fellow prisoners told Amnesty International.
About three months after Mr. al-Hamid's death, Saleh al-Shehi, a prominent journalist, died of an undisclosed disease shortly after his release from prison. Mr. al-Shehi had been arrested in January 2018 and sentenced to five years in prison for "insulting the royal court" after he criticized the office of the crown prince and accused it of corruption.
Solitary confinement is torture. It has had a profound and dangerous impact on my father. The mistreatment in the darkness of his prison cell suggests that the Saudi authorities are intent on killing him slowly. Prison officials do not reveal what he is being fed or what "medications" he receives.
I call upon the Biden administration to raise its voice and rescue my father before it is too late. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does care what the international community thinks of him and Saudi Arabia.
President-elect Joe Biden has vowed that the United States will insist on "responsible Saudi actions" and impose consequences for reckless ones. Getting the Saudi government to release my father and other political prisoners in the Kingdom would be an important step from the incoming administration.
Abdullah Alaoudh is director of research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now and co-founder of the Saudi National Assembly Party.
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