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Families of detainees appeal to US to kick up pressure in Mideast

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosted US President Joe Biden for talks in Jeddah on July 15, 2022
— Washington (AFP)

Relatives of imprisoned or recently released activists in the Middle East, including in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, urged the United States this week to use its influence to secure progress on human rights in those countries.

Their talks in Washington with White House, State Department and congressional officials, led by the NGO Freedom Initiative, came almost three months after President Joe Biden's much-criticized visit to Jeddah, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

The visit brought focus to Biden's back-and-forth posture toward US allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Before Biden was elected, he pledged to treat Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" because of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, dismembered in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and to be a herald of democracy.

But his cordial "fist bump" greeting with Prince Mohammed in July left a bitter taste for some activists and their families, and their visit to Washington was tinged with both disillusionment and determination to keep the pressure on.

Sanaa Seif, sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah, Egypt's most notorious detainee who has been on hunger strike for more than six months, told AFP she was "disappointed" that while US officials were "very sympathetic... it doesn't translate to anything tangible."

Pressure from Washington could, however, have an impact on the Egyptian government as well as on the British authorities and push them to act more forcefully, she argued. From his cell, her brother, sentenced to five years in prison for "spreading false information," became a British citizen this year.

- 'Imprisoned for tweets' -

Veteran Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, pictured at his Cairo home in 2019, is serving a five-year prison sentence

In the run-up to the global climate summit known as COP27 next month in Egypt, Palestinian Ramy Shaath, who was imprisoned for more than 900 days in Egypt, has called on the United States to ensure that this climate conference does not serve as "greenwashing" for the regime.

"The level of oppression is becoming devastating" in Egypt, he said, noting that NGOs say the country holds some 60,000 political prisoners.

Yet al-Sissi remains susceptible to foreign pressure.

"He definitely looks at the US and the European Union as the main source of support, the main source of income, main source of weaponry, and he's susceptible to their small criticism," Shaath said, adding that he wishes such criticism would become "more vocal."

Egypt receives more than $1 billion a year in direct US military aid.

Lina al-Hathloul, the sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women's rights activist released from prison in 2021 but still banned from leaving the country, also told US officials that "the only concrete solution (was) to stop encouraging a dictator," referring to the crown prince.

"You have leverage," she urged them.

Before Biden's trip to Jeddah in mid-July, "we were clear with our message: If the administration is going to visit our countries without putting clear conditions when it comes to human rights, it will get worse and our oppressors will feel emboldened," Lina al-Hathloul told AFP.

Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, pictured at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in France on January 8, 2022

"They promised us that it was not going to happen" in this way, she added, but the situation in Saudi Arabia is "clearly worse than before."

"Everyone is afraid," she said. "People are imprisoned for tweets."

In September, in front of the United Nations General Assembly, Biden assured that "the United States will always promote human rights... around the world," and that "the future will be won by those countries that unleash the full potential of their populations."

But his "fist bump" diplomacy, which was supposed to mark a new beginning with Riyadh, showed its limits in another area Wednesday with the announcement that Saudi-led oil exporters group Opec+ was going to cut its production.

"Biden sold his human rights principles for the Saudi crown prince's promise to increase oil production," blasted Kenneth Roth, the former head of non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch. "So Joe Biden, was it worth it?"

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