Families of US detainees in Middle East angry after left off Blinken call


Relatives and friends of several US nationals who are being held in Saudi Arabia and Egypt expressed their anger and frustration against the US administration after being excluded in a recent call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A 22 June call between Blinken and relatives of US nationals who are hostages or otherwise wrongfully detained in Russia, Venezuela, Rwanda and other countries, was made just weeks before US President Joe Biden’s controversial trip to the Middle East.

Mr. Biden is due to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month as part of a summit where oil production is likely to be high on the agenda, as well as a focus on improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

An expected rapprochement between the US president and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince is expected to happen.

The trip marks a major change in Mr. Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia. During his 2020 campaign for the presidency, Mr. Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” to punish the kingdom and its young crown prince for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr. Biden’s decision to abandon that pledge has been met by a sense of betrayal and anger by Saudi and other dissidents and human rights activists who say Mr. Biden is unlikely to make any practical gains from an unreliable partner.

Frustration among some dissidents and activists were heightened after Mr. Blinken held a call with families of hostages and other wrongfully detained US nationals in various countries – but not Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The call did not include families of Salah Soltan, an academic and legal US permanent resident and the father of human rights defender Mohamed Soltan, who is in prison in Egypt, or Hosam Khalaf, who has been held without a trial since 2017.

It also did not include the families of the American Walid Fitaihi, a doctor who is under travel ban in Saudi Arabia, or the families of Salah al-Haidar and his mother Aziza al-Yousef, a prominent women’s rights activist and US national who are all barred from leaving Saudi. The family of Badr Ibrahim, a US-Saudi journalist, was also not invited.

Some family members said they were angry about what they believed was a political decision to shift focus away from their own families’ plights because of Mr. Biden’s coming trip.

“The intentional and hypocritical cherry-picking of which ‘wrongful detention’ cases to raise or meet with is infuriating and discriminatory,” said one individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The willingness of the US to expend its political capital in resolving wrongful detention cases is not consistent and is based on some arbitrary criteria: is your wrongfully detained family member detained in a country that is a foe or ally? Is it a picture-perfect case that is ripe for resolution?”

Another person said they felt their family’s plight was simply no longer a priority for the Biden White House.

The state department declined to respond to the criticism. An official said the department reviews cases under the Levinson Act to determine if individuals have been “wrongfully” detained.

“The review assesses the facts of the case against enumerated criteria, without regard to political factors such as the US relationship with the country of detention,” the state department official said.

“We also continue to advocate for the immediate lifting of coercive travel restrictions for US nationals. We take our responsibility to assist all US nationals seriously, and we press for fair and transparent treatment in all cases.”

The statement, sent by email, suggested that the state department was differentiating between individuals who are considered hostages and wrongfully imprisoned, and those – like many US nationals in Saudi Arabia – who may not leave Saudi Arabia but have been released from prison.

The news came as rights advocates pointed to separate comments by Michael Alan Ratney, who has been nominated to serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and recently said in congressional testimony that Saudi had made “a bit of progress” on “freedom of expression, the rights of women, judicial transparency”.

Seth Binder, director of advocacy at Pomed, which advocates for democracy in the Middle East, said those claims were unsubstantiated. He said that any decision to keep the families of detained Saudi and Egyptian US nationals off the Blinken call was troubling, and that Mr. Biden’s decision to meet with Mohammed bin Salman showed that “human rights concerns have been sacrificed for what they have determined are more important national security interests”.

Some advocates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there were only dim hopes that the Saudis would agree to any human rights-related demands in exchange for Mr. Biden’s forthcoming visit. (Source: The Guardian)