For nearly two years, I was trapped with my daughter in Saudi Arabia under repressive laws that favor men over women and discriminate on the basis of identity and beliefs.
As a human rights researcher in Saudi Arabia, I have seen my Saudi colleagues and heroes detained, disappeared, tortured and even killed for expressing their opinions and supporting human rights.
I will never forget the sense of relief I felt on December 15, 2019, after years of living in fear, as I sat on a flight back to Washington State. When the clouds parted as we landed to reveal the Space Needle, I finally felt safe, free, and equal before the law.
Recently, that sense of security was shaken when President Joe Biden confirmed his intention to visit Saudi Arabia from July 13-16. He is expected to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
As so many affected by the Saudi repression languish, including American citizens and residents of Washington State, I can’t help but be disappointed and scared at how this trip can further embolden a dictatorship. already dangerous. This sends a tragic message to those affected by the Saudi repression here at home.
Since my return, I have had the honor of working with families of brave human rights activists and dissidents who are detained or framed for supporting human rights work, and others who are trapped in Saudi Arabia with their children like I was once. I hadn’t realized how widespread this problem was on our own soil until I returned to the United States.
I have worked on the cases of over 100 American families torn apart by the repression in Saudi Arabia. We work with family members who have not heard from their loved ones for years because they have disappeared, family members who have had to learn that their brother, son, father, mother or sisters have been tortured and now live with permanent physical deformities or post-traumatic stress disorder due to torture.
We work with families whose prison sentences and loved ones’ travel bans are so long that they live with the possibility of never seeing them again unless something changes. We have American women and children who remain trapped or kidnapped in the country in situations of abuse, unable to get out due to hyper-patriarchal and archaic male guardianship and kafala laws, which prohibit them from leaving the country without the permission of their husband or father.
We have women whose children have been taken to Saudi Arabia, and even one here in Washington State who is under an active travel ban in Saudi Arabia, so she cannot see her son. The Oregon mothers never got justice for their child’s murder because Saudi Arabia helped citizens flee before the trial.
The Saudi government’s repressive tactics have not been confined within its own borders, and the impact of transnational Saudi repression within US borders should not be ignored. This was most evident with the brutal murder of journalist Khashoggi, an American resident. Such egregious crimes committed by this regime seem to go without punishment.
I hope that a US President’s meeting with Saudi Arabia will result in the release of family members of US citizens and lawful permanent residents wrongfully detained – like my clients Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, Salman al-Odeh , Mohammed al-Qahtani, Mohammed al-Rabiah, Sarah and Omar AlJabri, and others who cannot be publicly named.
I also hope that this will result in the lifting of travel bans preventing individuals from leaving Saudi Arabia’s borders and returning home to their families – such as Aziza al-Yousef, Salah al-Haidar, Loujain al- Hathloul, Bader al-Ibrahim and Walid Fitaihi. I also hope that the American children trapped there can be reunited with their mothers – like Teresa Malof, Madonna Saad and so many others.
I urge the Biden administration to prioritize human rights ahead of this meeting and to ensure the safety and well-being of its own citizens and residents. A good start would be securing the freedom of those wrongfully detained and bringing these American families home.