A cross-party group of British MPs urged the UK Foreign Office to intervene to secure the safety of three prominent Gulf human rights activists, including Saudi women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul.
The MPs see the three cases as a test for the UK’s human rights policy in the coronavirus era. The letter coincides with the UN international day for victims of torture on Friday. All three activists claim to have been tortured.
Loujain’s sister Lina, who is based in Brussels, told the Guardian that her family had spoken to her a fortnight ago and she had expressed fears that she would not be able to speak to them again for many months.
Loujain, a campaigner for women’s right to drive, was arrested in May 2018. Although women can now drive in the kingdom, there appears no prospect of her release or even a proper trial.
“One of the charges against her is meeting with a British embassy official in Riyadh, so I hope the Foreign Office realises it has a special responsibility to do everything to campaign for her,” Lina al-Hathoul said.
“Her morale was very low psychologically. The last time she was not allowed to see anyone for three months she was tortured, so it is urgent to do more to campaign for her release,” she added.
Caroline Lucas, one of the MPs in the cross-party group, challenged the Foreign Office approach.
“By refusing to speak out about the ongoing abuse of these brave individuals, the government is once again putting its pursuit of preferential trade deals ahead of human rights. Its vision of a ‘Global Britain’ is looking like one where moral values are tossed aside in the name of political expediency,” she said.
Brendan O’Hara, the MP for Argyll & Bute and chair of the all-party group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf, said: “With Brexit fast approaching, it is paramount that human rights are at the centre of UK foreign policy.”
Loujain has been held in the Saudi Arabia’s maximum-security al-Ha’ir prison complex near Riyadh for more than two years. Last year 13 UN experts called for her immediate release.
Concern is also being expressed for Ahmed Mansoor, who was handed a 10-year sentence by the United Arab Emirates for “insulting the rank and reputation of the UAE and their symbols” and “disseminating false information to damage the United Arab Emirates’ reputation abroad”.
He has been held in solitary confinement and is said to have no bed nor access to water, and he has staged successive hunger strikes. His health has deteriorated sharply, his supporters say.
New coronavirus cases in the UAE have risen to 450 new cases per day, and Human Rights Watch has reported outbreaks in UAE jails. Total deaths across the UAE have reached 307.
The third activist for whom concern is expressed by the MPs is Abduljalil Al Singace, a Bahraini activist sentenced to life for criticising the government. Another Bahraini activist, Maryam Al Khawaja, whose father Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is at Jau prison along with Singace, reported that there were confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the prison.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain is thought to have presided over one of the most effective attempts to combat coronavirus, with only 68 deaths to date, but there was an increase last week, with new infections currently running at 550 per day.
Partly on the guidance of British public health advisers, the king has pardoned 901 prisoners, and more than 500 more will be allowed to serve out their sentences outside prison.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “On this important day of solidarity, we must not forget the suffering of these brave activists. It’s time for the Foreign Office to end its soft-touch policy towards the Gulf and call for their immediate and unconditional releases.”
The Foreign Office says some of its successful work on individual human rights cases comes through private lobbying rather than public condemnation. It is introducing a UK sanctions regime to make it easier to impose travel bans and asset freezes on egregious human rights abusers. (Source: The Guardian)