Written by Vivian Yee and David D. Kirkpatrick (Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.)
Brushing back pressure from Washington, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia escalated his crackdown on even the mildest forms of dissent with arrests this week of at least nine intellectuals, journalists, activists and their family members, according to rights groups and a Saudi associate of the detainees.
Among those held are two dual Saudi-American citizens and two women — one of them pregnant, the groups said. Many of the detainees are suspected of having complained to Western journalists and rights groups about the treatment of imprisoned women’s activists, according to a Saudi national briefed on the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss confidential information.
The arrests come as Crown Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old de facto ruler of the kingdom, is under intense scrutiny over the killing last fall of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.
In the aftermath, a chorus of U.S. lawmakers from both parties have urged the crown prince to loosen his iron-fisted grip by releasing some of the nonviolent activists. Many lawmakers have focused attention on a small group jailed for campaigning for reforms to the kingdom’s austere social code — including the right for women to drive, which Crown Prince Mohammed has granted.
Others have demanded the release of a dual Saudi-American citizen, Walid Fitaihi, a Harvard-trained doctor, who has been held without charges or trial for a year and a half.
Associates and relatives of the activists and Fitaihi have said that the detainees have been repeatedly tortured.
The most recent arrests — the first high-profile detentions since Khashoggi’s killing — suggest that the crown prince intends to continue his crackdown regardless of U.S. admonitions.
“By targeting them, they are signaling to their entire people that there will be zero tolerance of any form of criticism, let alone questioning, of the state’s authoritarian practices,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s director of research for the Middle East.
One of the dual U.S. citizens detained, Salah al-Haider, is the son of a prominent activist temporarily freed last week, Aziza al-Yousef. He had celebrated his mother’s return by posting photos of her on Twitter. The other is Bader el-Ibrahim, a Shiite author and physician who may have attracted the authorities’ attention because he has written about Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s population is mostly Sunni, and Shiites are often subject to discrimination.
Their names were confirmed by ALQST, a rights group based in London that has worked on behalf of the activists, and by a Saudi associate of the detainees who insisted on anonymity out of safety fears.
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, nor a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment Friday.
Lawmakers in Washington called the arrests a sign of disregard for the U.S. alliance.
“Our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia is important, but actions like this make it very difficult to sustain it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who recently introduced legislation to deny visas to those whom U.S. intelligence agencies deem responsible for the Khashoggi killing, said the new arrests showed that Crown Prince Mohammed “still feels he has nothing to fear from the Trump administration.”
He added that the prince “doesn’t understand how badly his recklessness is hurting what’s left of support for the U.S.-Saudi partnership in the Congress and among the American people.”
Almost all those arrested in recent days are connected to a group of women’s rights activists who have been detained since last spring. They have been charged with acting as foreign agents and working to undermine the kingdom’s security, though rights groups say their detentions appear to stem from their activism.
Three of the activists, including al-Yousef, were granted temporary release last week, leading some observers to speculate that the international pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its rights record was working. But the charges against them have not been dropped.
Yahya Assiri, director of ALQST, said he did not know what to make of the latest roundup, coming so soon after the authorities had allowed three of the women to go home.
“It’s just bizarre,” he said. “They released Aziza and they arrested her son. I couldn’t understand that.”
Those arrested this week had far lower profiles than the women’s rights activists and tended to be less outspoken, though they belonged to the same social and intellectual circles.
Among them was Ayman al-Drees, the husband of a Saudi feminist activist, Malak al-Shehri, who had fled to the United States last year after the other women’s activists had been arrested. In 2016, Malak al-Shehri was arrested after defying the kingdom by tweeting a photo of herself not wearing a head scarf or an abaya, part of a protest against the country’s conservative dress code.
In a phone interview Friday from California, al-Shehri said her husband had called her from his family’s farm in Saudi Arabia to tell her that he saw men “coming for him.”
Sounding frightened, he told her to be careful, she said, and that he loved her, before hanging up.
Al-Shehri said her husband, an insurance underwriter, had muted his own activist posts on Twitter out of fear two years ago and had recently limited himself to translating feminist videos from English into Arabic to spread awareness of feminist ideas.
“We didn’t expect this, because he didn’t do anything wrong. He did nothing,” al-Shehri said, her voice breaking. “He was being careful, but it didn’t work.”
Also among the recent detainees, according to Prisoners of Conscience, another rights group, was Yazed al-Faife, a journalist for a state-owned newspaper, Al Sharq. He had recently appeared in a video accusing Saudi officials of habitually neglecting parts of southern Saudi Arabia and suggesting that some official dealings had been corrupt.
Al-Faife said that poverty, lack of opportunity and poor infrastructure along the Saudi border with Yemen had allowed Iranian intelligence to destabilize the area and incite discontent in the Saudi population there. This, too, may have been sensitive territory in the authorities’ eyes: Saudi Arabia, with its ally the United Arab Emirates, has drawn strong criticism for its destructive war in Yemen against the Houthis, a militant group believed to be propped up by Iran.
The latest detainees also include a couple, Thumar al-Marzouqi and Khadija al-Harbi, both writers. Al-Harbi, who often writes on feminist themes, is pregnant, Assiri said. Others arrested included Mohammed al-Sadiq, a writer; Fahad Abalkhail, who has supported giving women the right to drive; and Abdullah al-Duhailan, a journalist, novelist and advocate for Palestinian rights.
A 10th person, Anas al-Mazrou, a lecturer in literature at King Saud University, is believed to have been detained last month. The Saudi with knowledge of the case said the arrest was related to al-Mazrou’s appearance on a human rights panel in Riyadh, where he mentioned the imprisoned women’s rights activists.
“No one dares to ask, and I am not challenging anybody, including those who are sitting here on stage, to ask about the human rights activists,” al-Mazrou said, naming three women and a man and saying that they had “contributed to spread the idea of human rights.”
“I will give you an idea and I invite everybody to think about it; the idea of the nation being the guardian of itself,” he added, so the guardian “is the people, not the ruler.”
The conversation quickly moved on to other subjects, but the event was recorded and he was later arrested.