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US president must demand real progress on human rights in Saudi, Egypt, rights groups say

July 13, 2022 at 2:21 pm

US President Joe Biden in Lod near Tel Aviv, on July 13, 2022 [MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images]

The Freedom Initiative has called on US President Joe Biden to demand real progress on human rights from Egypt and Saudi Arabia during his visit to the Middle East.

Biden is making his first visit to the region as president, arriving today in Israel as his first stop before meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in the occupied West Bank.

Biden will then take a direct flight from Israel to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, ending the Kingdom’s pariah status that Biden himself pledged.

Rights groups have expressed deep concern over Biden’s meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), which will give a green light to Riyadh to continue to crack down on civil society.

The visit could authorise further attacks on dissidents abroad, more executions and for travel bans on dissidents to be upheld.

In March alone Saudi Arabia executed 81 people on a single day, which Amnesty International said “signalled an appalling escalation in Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty.”

READ: US weighs possible resumption of offensive arms sales to Saudis, say sources

Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Agnes Callamard, has said the visit is “a betrayal for Jamal Khashoggi, for Yemen, and a betrayal of what the Democratic party stood for over the last three years.”

The visit takes place one and a half years after Biden declassified an intelligence report that stated MBS approved columnist Khashoggi’s murder in 2018.

Tens of thousands of political prisoners languish in jail whilst many people are trapped with unlawful travel bans, the Freedom Initiative said, of both Saudi and Egypt.

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the UK-based non-profit FairSquare released a report outlining how Egypt is using travel bans to target rights defenders which have separated families, damaged careers, and affected people’s mental health.

Often people only discover they have been banned from travelling at the airport after they arrive to catch a plane.

Sisi's Prisons - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Egypt Sisi’s Prisons – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

One of these is human rights defender Karim Ennarah, who has not been able to join his wife in London for 18 months as a result of the travel ban.

Ennarah was arrested in November 2020 following a meeting between international diplomats and the Egyptian Initiative for personal rights.

He was released two weeks later but subject to a travel ban.

Freedom Initiative has said: “President Biden must demand real progress on human rights. Starting with the release of political prisoners and lifting travel bans on human rights defenders.”

Egypt is a close US ally and has been the second highest recipient of American aid for decades.

Even though Biden promised to put human rights at the forefront of US foreign policy, and made his famous statement in relation to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, “No more blank cheques for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’,” his efforts to force real change have been described as insufficient.

At the beginning of this year Biden authorised a $2.5 billion arms sale to Egypt. Several months earlier he authorised $170 million in military aid, suspending only $130 million.

Calls by the Freedom Initiative follow a letter written by relatives of American detainees in Saudi and Egypt calling on Biden to help with their release during his visit.

“We spent many occasions such as holidays, the birth of children and grandchildren, and other important family events, with vacant seats at our tables,” the letter read.

Among the signatories was the sister of Saudi activist Loujain Alhathloul.

“We worry that these warmer relations will only eclipse the plight of our loved ones, and we expect closer ties to be utilised to insist on their release and our reunification.”

The families wrote the letter after finding out they were excluded from a phone call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and families of citizens detained in Russia, Venezuela and Rwanda who were told the government was “working to bring your loved ones home.”