SAUDI ARABIA may be conceding, slightly, to the growing international outrage over human rights crimes committed by security forces linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On Thursday, three of more than a dozen women arrested in the past year were freed. A Saudi human rights group says it is believed that eight other women on trial with them in Riyadh could also be released in the coming days. If so, that would be a step toward ending the enormous suffering inflicted on these peaceful activists. But it falls far short of the accountability necessary to ensure that the runaway abuses by the crown prince and his thugs will cease.
Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan were among a number of women’s rights advocates who were arrested last May. They were provisionally released with religious scholar Rokaya al-Mohareb ,though their trial continues. Among those still being held are some of the most renowned Saudi women, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Hatoon al-Fassi. Two others, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah , were not included in the Riyadh trial and remain imprisoned without charge.
After the women were arrested, most were held incommunicado for months in secret prisons and, according to testimony they delivered in court, brutally tortured. Ms. Hathloul’s family has said she and others were subjected to beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding and sexual harassment. One of the women reportedly was so traumatized that she attempted suicide. Meanwhile, government media and senior officials, including Mohammed bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, slandered them as “traitors” who had accepted money from foreign governments to commit espionage.
When the closed trial of the women finally began this month, the charges turned out to be far weaker. According to human rights groups and other sources, Ms. Hathloul is accused of such offenses as communicating with human rights groups, journalists and Western diplomats about women’s rights issues and applying for a young professionals program at the United Nations. That retreat from the libels of the crown prince and Mr. Jubeir probably reflects a recognition that the persecution of the women, which has been denounced by the United Nations, numerous Western governments and a U.S. Senate resolution, is unsustainable.
Simple justice demands that all of the women be released and the charges against them dropped. But that would not address the larger institutional problem, which is the crown prince’s command of special security forces that have committed multiple crimes, including the murder and dismemberment of journalist and Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. The reported architect of the Khashoggi operation, Saud al-Qahtani, is also alleged to have overseen the torture of Ms. Hathloul, whom he reportedly threatened with rape and murder. Yet this close aide to Mohammed bin Salman has not been held accountable. He is not among those on trial in Riyadh for the Khashoggi murder, and the government is stonewalling the women’s accounts of torture.
Ending the abuses perpetrated by Mohammed bin Salman is particularly difficult because of the kid-glove treatment he has received from the Trump administration, which has had virtually nothing to say about the persecution of the women. But the pressure from Congress and European governments finally appears to be having some effect. It’s vital that it be maintained until those Saudis responsible for torture and murder are held accountable — and the structures that enabled it are dismantled.