The moves in recent days, by a trio of authoritarian governments that are close allies or partners of the United States, have put human rights issues front and center weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, in a preemptive challenge to his pledge to vigorously defend such rights.
The Trump administration had taken a selective approach — forcefully confronting U.S. adversaries such as Iran and China over abuses while often downplaying or ignoring violations committed by allies. President Trump often had admiring words for repressive leaders, calling Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, for example, his “favorite dictator.”
The motives for the recent actions by inscrutable governments in Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara were hard to divine. Some interpreted them as part of a hurried scramble to prepare for a new reality in Washington, by cracking down before a deadline passed — or else, a desire to reinforce the state’s authority, irrespective of who was moving into the White House.
“This happened at a time when I believe the government is feeling particularly fragile, and eager to reassert red lines and signal that even activities that were standard and tolerated in the past will not be allowed today,” said Hossam Bahgat, an investigative journalist and the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, whose members were arrested over the past 10 days.
The detained activists — Gasser Abdel-Razek, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer — have been accused of terrorism-related charges and publishing “false news and information that may harm public peace and security,” according to a statement from EIPR. None of the activists had been presented with any evidence supporting the accusations, which amounted to a “coordinated assault to punish us for the totality of our activism,” the group said.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it rejected “any attempt to influence the prosecution’s investigation into Egyptian citizens.”
Sissi’s government is facing intensifying pressure to release the men sooner than Biden’s Inauguration Day. Criticism of the arrests has come from the secretary general of the United Nations, along with dozens of European and U.S. lawmakers. The State Department said it was “concerned” about the arrests, as did Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state.
“Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights,” Blinken wrote on Twitter, referring to a meeting that members of EIPR held with diplomats that preceded the arrests.
In his public statements during the presidential campaign, Biden asserted that he would speak out vigorously on human rights.
“America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority, even with our closest security partners,” he said in an Oct. 2 statement marking the second anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul. “I will defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence.”
On Saudi Arabia, Biden said his administration would “reassess our relationship” and “end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”
Biden is widely expected to pursue the kind of liberal multilateralism embraced by the White House when he was vice president. But some of his recent statements stand in contrast to the record of the Obama administration, which provided assistance to a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen at a time when the coalition was accused of carrying out indiscriminate airstrikes on civilians. Obama was also criticized by some families of imprisoned dissidents as being timid about confronting Middle East allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
“Biden has made important commitments to dramatically altering our relationships with abusive governments, including a promise to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now.
But he would face “tremendous pressure” not to suspend aid and instead to condition U.S. assistance on “vague formulas” to address human rights and other issues.
The formulas “never work,” she added, noting that they can instead encourage repressive governments to collect “chits” — such as prisoners — that could be traded with the United States at some later date.
Even so, for four years, “Trump was cheering on the government here,” Bahgat said. “Even if Biden and his team do absolutely nothing, that will have been an improvement.”
The plight of a group of jailed women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia is one of several issues driving calls for Biden to downgrade the U.S. relationship with the kingdom. The women were arrested nearly three years ago after being accused of charges — including “undermining national security” — that were mainly related to activism, according to Saudi human rights groups. Family members said some of the women, including Loujain al-Hathloul, were tortured while in custody.
Supporters of the women mounted a vigorous campaign to highlight the activists’ lengthy detention during Saudi Arabia’s recent hosting of the Group of 20 summit, hoping it would force the kingdom to release them. Instead, on Wednesday, the case was transferred from a criminal court to a specialized terrorism court, suggesting that the Saudi government was holding firm to its assertion that the women constituted a national security threat.
Hathloul, who advocated for the lifting of a ban on Saudi women driving and other rights, has carried out hunger strikes to protest the conditions of her imprisonment. During her court appearance Wednesday, “her body was shaking uncontrollably” and her voice “was faint and shaky,” her supporters said in a statement.
Her sister Lina al-Hathloul said she did not know what to make of the timing of her sister’s court appearance. “I am just hoping it will be a way to move the trial forward and to admit there’s a lack of evidence and release her,” she said in a text message.
Governments have given mixed signals, adding to the confusion. The Saudi court said Wednesday it would investigate allegations that the women were tortured, an accusation the government has repeatedly denied. In Egypt, in the weeks before the arrests of the EIPR members, Sissi’s government released hundreds of political prisoners.
And in Turkey, Erdogan recently announced a new phase of legal and economic reforms that appeared aimed at improving investor confidence as well as relations with Western allies, including Biden, who was critical of the Turkish leader during the presidential campaign.
But in a speech Nov. 22, Erdogan dashed speculation that any reforms would lead to the release of two of Turkey’s most prominent detainees: Selahattin Demirtas, a lawyer and former leader of a pro-Kurdish opposition party, and Osman Kavala, a well-known philanthropist. Comments by a senior member of Erdogan’s ruling party criticizing the lengthy detentions of the two men had stirred rumors they would soon be freed.
“The people who are currently at the disposal of the judiciary,” the Turkish president said, “cannot be defended by Tayyip Erdogan or his allies.”