Saudi women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef checks her mobile phone during an interview in the capital Riyadh, on Sept. 27, 2016. She is among women detained in Saudi Arabia for demanding greater rights. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution Wednesday calling on Saudi Arabia to “immediately and unconditionally” release women’s rights advocates imprisoned there, as Congress intensifies its criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  

 The House resolution, introduced by Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), is separate from pending legislation aimed at cutting off U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of Khashoggi.

It focuses more narrowly on the plight of the women’s rights advocates, notably on allegations that at least 10 of the women have been severely abused while in custody. The resolution calls on the U.S. government to “continue publicly and privately demanding the release of individuals wrongfully detained.”  

 The Saudi government has been forced to reckon with intense scrutiny of its human rights practices in the months since Saudi agents killed Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. His death followed a harsh crackdown on the government’s perceived enemies that included the arrests of clerics, business executives, royal family members and political dissidents inside the kingdom. 

 Beginning in May, authorities began rounding up activists who had advocated for women’s rights. Their causes included the lifting of a female driving ban, which the crown prince repealed last year. Saudi authorities accused the women of having improper contacts with unnamed foreign governments.  

 Human rights groups dismissed the accusations as baseless and said that by arresting the women, the Saudi leadership was trying to send a message about the futility of grass-roots activism. 


At midnight on June 24, 2018, a woman is interviewed in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on the day Saudi authorities lifted a ban on women driving. (Iman Al-Dabbagh/For The Washington Post)

 During a visit to Washington last week, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, repeated the government’s accusations that the women had contacted unidentified “hostile” foreign powers and said the detention of the women “had to do with national security, not activism.” Saudi officials have also denied allegations of torture.     

 The women have yet to be formally indicted, and there has been a marked contrast between the slow pace of their prosecution and the Saudi government’s speedy handling of the Khashoggi case: Within seven weeks of Khashoggi’s death, charges were brought against 11 suspects.  

 The House resolution identified several of the detained women, including Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi scholar and writer, and Aziza al-Yousef, a U.S. resident who had helped lead a campaign against rules requiring Saudi women to seek approval from a male guardian to travel or to work.  

 Another detainee, Loujain al-Hathloul, “was reportedly beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed, and threatened with rape and murder,” the resolution said.  

Karoun Demirjian and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.