Intel: How Congress is trying to get US prisoners out of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey

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Congress is cracking down on increased instances of arrests of US citizens and diplomatic staff by American security partners in the Middle East.

The Senate’s foreign aid panel on Thursday adopted bipartisan language in a report accompanying its annual spending bill that would bar Saudi, Egyptian and Turkish officials from entering the United States if they have been “involved in the wrongful detention” of US citizens or locally employed staff at US diplomatic missions.

“Our government needs to send a clear message — we will not tolerate the wrongful detention of Americans or the foreign nationals serving Americans at our diplomatic missions around the world,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who introduced the amendment, said in a statement after the Senate panel unanimously advanced the spending bill. “Following the actions taken by officials of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, this provision will do just that.” 

Why it matters: Congress hopes that threatening officials from the three US security partners will make them think twice before detaining American citizens and employees.

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Egypt detains some 20 US citizens, according to Van Hollen. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned at least three dual Saudi-American citizens. And while Turkey released Andrew Brunson last year after President Donald Trump’s personal intervention, Ankara continues to detain a Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen employed by the US consulate in Istanbul. The White House has not placed nearly as much public emphasis on Topuz as they have on Brunson, an evangelical US pastor.

Additionally, Trump has shown deference to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, avoiding talk of human rights issues with either leader. Van Hollen’s provision specifically notes the plight of Mustafa Kassem, a diabetic US citizen reportedly suffering from poor medical care in an Egyptian prison. Another section of the spending bill requires Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to report on Kassem’s status before releasing $300 million in Egyptian military aid.

And despite the backlash following Saudi Arabia’s assassination of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, Riyadh arrested and reportedly tortured two dual citizens earlier this year: Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of Saudi women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef. Youssef was released from prison in March; her son remains in prison. Saudi Arabia had previously arrested a third dual citizen, the Red Crescent’s Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, in March 2018.

What’s next: Van Hollen’s provision is not the House version of the spending bill, which passed 226-203 in June. However, the bipartisan amendment is not expected to face much resistance when the two chambers eventually agree on a final spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Know more: Follow congressional correspondent Bryant Harris to keep up to speed with what’s in the Senate’s foreign aid spending bill. Here’s his report on how Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has abandoned a multiyear effort to condition military aid to Egypt. And here’s another on how Congress is pushing the Trump administration to reopen the US Consulate in Basra, Iraq. And Pentagon correspondent Jack Destch reported on Congress overruling Trump’s decision to cut Syrian stabilization aid.

Correction: Sept. 30, 2019. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hamza Ulucay was being detained by Turkey. He was released in January.

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Found in: Human rights

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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