US President Joe Biden has called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and promised to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy but is now struggling to rein in Saudi rulers.
Advocates say that the disappearance and imprisoning of dissident activists is ongoing, reports of torture are widespread and decades-long sentences are out of proportion with the alleged crimes, the Washington-based The Hill newspaper reported on Sunday.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, told the newspaper that “the Saudis are showing their utter contempt for Joe Biden’s human rights policy.”
“They’ve had more than eight months now to size up the administration and they’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not serious on this issue,” added Riedel, who has served four US presidents as an adviser on the Middle East.
The Biden administration claims it brings up the issue of human rights in its meetings with Saudi senior officials, continuing to raise the 2018 murder of Washington-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit squad.
Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the Saudi government in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, after being lured to the consulate building on the pretext of providing him with papers for his upcoming wedding. He was suffocated and dismembered while his fiancée was waiting outside for him. His remains have not been found.
Saudi Arabia initially issued conflicting stories about Khashoggi’s disappearance, but eventually said that he was killed in a “rogue” operation.
Despite official denials by Riyadh, some Western governments, as well as the CIA, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination, causing an international uproar against Saudi Arabia.
During his presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia “a pariah,” pledging to take a much tougher line with the kingdom than Donald Trump had.
However, apart from sanctions on some lower-ranking Saudi officials, no other punitive measures have been taken against the kingdom.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, standing alongside the Saudi foreign minister at the State Department on Thursday, said the two countries work together on “very significant issues.”
Blinken added that he would also talk “about the continued progress we hope to see in Saudi Arabia on rights.”
But advocates have argued that the Saudis are dismissing such rhetoric from the Biden administration.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, had been first sentenced to 20 years in prison in April over an anonymous Twitter account with criticism of the kingdom's rulers, according to his family.
His sister, Areej al-Sadhan, a US citizen, wrote on Twitter last week that an appeals court confirmed the prison sentence.
Al Sadhan has asked Biden to more forcefully hold the kingdom to account over the issue.
According to a report by Freedom Initiative published this month, Abdulrahman is one of 89 American persons that have been disappeared, detained, or under travel bans at some point in 2021 in Saudi Arabia.
Last week, the US State Department condemned the kingdom after a Saudi appeals court upheld Abdulrahman’s four-decade sentence.
A senior administration official told The Hill that senior US officials have raised Abdulrahman's case directly with senior Saudi officials.
Al Sadhan said that isn’t enough. “Clearly there wasn’t enough accountability to the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and that, by itself, has emboldened the Saudi officials to continue on committing human rights abuses,” she told The Hill.
“One example is what’s going on with my brother and my family directly,” she added.
Al Sadhan said the situation with her brother changed rapidly when MBBS was not included in the sanctions imposed by the Biden administration targeting Khashoggi’s attackers.
“Within a week, when MBS knew he was let off the hook, quickly that changed, and my brother was dragged into secret hearings, sham trials, a list of vague, absurd charges without any real evidence, and my brother was basically sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and a 20-years travel ban,” she said.
Cathryn Grothe, a research associate at the human rights and democracy-focused organization Freedom House, said Saudi authorities have been targeting critics and journalists with surveillance, disproportionate criminal penalties and harassment online.
“There’s still hundreds of journalists and activists, bloggers, government critics who are continually harassed,” Grothe said.
“We also know, I think just in the last year, there have been reports of incredible torture in Saudi prisons, the mistreatment of those held in detention. All of this together paints a very grim picture.”
Last week, Prominent activist Musa al-Qarni died in a Saudi prison after spending 15 years behind bars.
Sanad Organization for Human Rights, which defends political and civil rights in Saudi Arabia and monitors human rights violations, said on Tuesday that 66-year-old al-Qarni died in Dhahban Prison in Jeddah.
Under MBS, Saudi forces arrested dozens of princes and prominent business figures in November 2017 and imprisoned them inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive ordered by the then-newly appointed Mohammed bin Salman.
Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s former crown prince, was also arrested and charged with treason along with his half-brother Nawwaf bin Nayef and his uncle Ahmed bin Abdulaziz on March 6, 2020, as part of MBS’s efforts to consolidate power and eliminate potential rivals.
According to sources familiar with his situation, the former crown prince has suffered serious injuries to his feet from beatings and can no longer walk unaided.
Bin Salman is also accused of ordering assassination missions against a former Saudi intelligence official, Saad al-Jabri, who currently resides in Canada and revealed earlier this year that he has faced repeated threats on his life.
Riyadh was named by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) as the second-worst country in the world in terms of human rights, due to its ban on protests, limits on free expression and civil society organizations, and the inability of citizens to vote or participate in public life.