Saudi Arabia has spent millions in the past two years seeking to whitewash an image tarnished by war crimes in Yemen and the brutal repression of domestic dissent. The effort was meant to culminate this weekend as it hosted the summit of the Group of 20 nations in Riyadh. The event will not now be so high-profile: Because of the covid-19 epidemic, the summit will be held virtually. But the regime of King Salman and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will still receive an undeserved validation — unless G-20 leaders use the summit to call attention to human rights activists who have been unjustly imprisoned.
A number of Saudis who peacefully campaigned for women’s rights have languished in prison for years, despite never having been convicted of a crime. They include Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz, Maya’a al-Zahrani and Samar Badawi, who were arrested in 2018 after advocating for the right to drive and for an end to the male guardianship system. Activist Salah al-Haidar, a U.S. citizen, has been jailed since April 2019. His mother, women’s rights activist Aziza al-Yousef, was released shortly before that after being held for a year, but she has been banned from leaving the kingdom.
A number of the female prisoners were held incommunicado and tortured before being transferred to the prison system. Ms. Hathloul was abducted from the United Arab Emirates and transported back to Saudi Arabia before her arrest; she has reported to the official Saudi Human Rights Commission about the abuse she suffered, which included beatings, electric shocks and sexual assault. ...
A year after their arrests, the female activists were put on trial. Ms. Hathloul was charged with “crimes” such as giving briefings on human rights to Western diplomats and journalists. The proceedings soon lapsed; there have been no hearings in more than 18 months. Instead, Ms. Hathloul was offered her freedom in exchange for testifying that she was not tortured. She refused. Since last March, authorities have restricted her meetings with her parents, prompting her to launch hunger strikes. Her family says they have not seen or heard from her since Oct. 26, when she told her parents she was beginning another hunger strike.
Leaders of G-20 nations, particularly from the democracies, never should have allowed Saudi Arabia to assume the presidency of the group or host a summit while these outrages were ongoing. They will compound the error if they participate in this weekend’s events while remaining silent about the imprisoned activists. They should publicly demand that Ms. Hathloul and other imprisoned activists be freed — and make clear that the Saudi regime will not have normal relations with their governments until they are.