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Intel: House Democrats want answers from Saudi ambassador over jailed female activists

A group of seven congressional Democrats laid into Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States on Wednesday for failing to respond to their repeated requests to discuss the kingdom’s continued detention of female rights activists.
ST PAUL, MN - AUGUST 05: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks during a press conference outside the DFL Headquarters on August 5, 2020 in St Paul, Minnesota. Omar is hoping to retain her seat as the representative for Minnesota's 5th Congressional District in next week's primary election. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

A group of seven congressional Democrats laid into Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States on Wednesday for failing to respond to their repeated requests to discuss the kingdom’s continued detention of female rights activists. 

“We are deeply disappointed that the Saudi government would violate diplomatic norms by ignoring our request to get answers on the well-being of women activists who remain in prison,” the seven House members, including Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Jackie Speier of California, said in a statement.

They received no answer to their July letter to Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud asking for a meeting to discuss the imprisonment status of activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdulaziz and Eman al-Nafjan. California Rep. Adam Schiff sent a letter to the diplomat in June requesting an update on Hathloul’s confinement, which also went unanswered. 

The three human rights defenders were arrested along with several other activists in May 2018 as part of a sweeping crackdown on right-to-drive activists and opponents of the male guardianship system. Nafjan was temporarily released pending trial, but Hathloul and Abdulaziz remain in prison, where rights groups say detainees are regularly subjected to solitary confinement and torture.

Why it matters: Saudi Arabia has faced backlash in Congress over its human rights violations since the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. 

But congressional efforts to hold Riyadh accountable have been met with resistance from the White House, which views Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Iran and has blocked measures to punish the Saudis for Khashoggi’s murder or end American support for their military campaign in Yemen. 

Members of Congress have also urged the Donald Trump administration to press Saudi Arabia for information on several dual Saudi-US citizens detained or awaiting trial in the kingdom. Among them is Harvard-educated physician Walid Fitaihi, whom The New York Times reports was tortured in detention. 

In July, a group of Republican and Democratic senators asked for Trump’s help securing the release of Saad Aljabri’s two children, calling the exiled former Saudi intelligence official a close ally whose counterterrorism work saved thousands of American lives. 

What’s next: The invite remains open for Princess Reema, the kingdom’s first female ambassador to the United States, to discuss the detained activists, the lawmakers said in their letter Wednesday. 

“It is our hope that Ambassador Reema can find common ground in this cause, especially given her own advocacy on behalf of women business owners,” they said.  

Know more: Read more about Hathloul’s two-year detention inside Saudi Arabia's notorious maximum security prison and her family’s efforts to gain her release. 

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