In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged, “The United States will not rest until all Americans wrongfully detained abroad are returned home.” Pompeo not only called on Iran to release Americans in Iranian prisons but also called for all those with foreign citizenship to be released.
Pompeo’s demands were largely directed at Iran, a U.S. adversary. But at the very least, he should be calling also for the release of American citizens from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — whom President Trump recently called “my friend” — has unjustly imprisoned at least two dual U.S.-Saudi citizens. They must be released.
A year ago, the Saudi government arrested Bader al-Ibrahim, an epidemiologist and writer. He is an American citizen; he is also my cousin. In addition to practicing medicine, Bader wrote articles on political developments in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. He also wrote a book about Shiite activism.
The other detained American citizen is Salah al-Haidar, a young journalist whose writing focused on human rights in Saudi Arabia. His YouTube program (“That’s the Point”) was deleted after his arrest.
Salah’s mother, women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, has also been imprisoned for her work on behalf of human rights.
The Trump administration has been completely silent on the cases of these two Americans held in Saudi prisons 20 miles from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. To this day, neither of them has been charged with any crime.
Since Bader’s and Salah’s arrests, family members have visited the State Department and spoken with members of Congress multiple times, asking for their help in securing the release of our relatives and other prisoners in Saudi Arabia who are either Americans or close relatives of American citizens, but to little avail.
The State Department yet to make a public statement on their cases, let alone call for their release.
The Trump administration has shown that it can get Americans out of prison. It secured the release of Princeton doctoral student and U.S. citizen Xiyue Wang from Iran in December, even before the coronavirus pandemic. And last month it arranged the dramatic airlift release of Lebanese American Amer Fakhoury from a Lebanese prison.
In mid-March, Iran released Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran, along with tens of thousands of prisoners on medical furlough. Pompeo immediately went before the press and made this solemn pledge: “The United States will continue to work for Michael’s full release as well as the release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Iran.”
Even in normal times, this lack of urgency for the cases of detained Americans would be troublesome. But the present situation is anything but normal. At last count, there were 2,795 covid-19 cases and 41 deaths in Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi government.
The number of cases could climb as high as 200,000, according to the Saudi health minister. The country, like much of the world, is on lockdown. Riyadh, where the two Americans are being held, has been locked down 24 hours day, seven days a week. As we all know, overcrowded and unsanitary prisons are vectors for this frightening disease.
Our loved ones, citizens of the United States, are prisoners of conscience in the infected jails of a “strategic ally” of their own government.
Clearly, private entreaties to Saudi Arabia by the United States have not succeeded. Covid-19 is now adding a cruel and potentially fatal layer of fear and oppression for these Americans and their families. As an epidemiologist, Bader could be put to much better use helping on the front lines of the coronavirus battle rather than sitting in a jail cell.
If the United States cannot hold the Saudi leadership accountable for the safety and welfare of American citizens, then what is the utility of the U.S.-Saudi alliance? Or the value of American citizenship?
It is the duty of U.S. government officials to protect Americans, regardless of their national origin or religion — or of whether their jailer is labeled an ally.
It is long past time for the secretary of state and senior U.S. officials to publicly demand action from — and hold accountable — those whom the president calls his friends.
As much as the State Department might prefer a cautious, low-key approach to helping Bader and Salah get out of jail, the clock is ticking. Saudi Arabia should be made to honor its commitment to the United States and to respect the rights of our citizens — even as it abuses its own people.