World Is Silent On Four Captive Saudi Princesses

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Earlier this fall, we learned the news that Saudi Arabia, already a member of the UN Human Rights Council, had been chosen to chair a panel that selects “independent experts” for the Council.

As head of a five-strong group of diplomats, the influential role would give [Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva] Mr Trad the power to select applicants from around the world for scores of expert roles in countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights. . . .

UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said the appointment, made in June but unreported until [September], may have been a consolation prize for the Saudis after they withdrew their bid to head the 47-nation council following international condemnation of the kingdom’s human rights record.

The US reaction to the appointment, i.e., that the US “welcomes” it, was almost as disgraceful as the appointment itself.

Understandably, there was significant backlash, most of it centered on the plights of Raif Badawi and Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. Badawi was sentenced to ten years and 1,000 lashes for criticizing religious and political leaders on his blog. Al-Nimr was arrested as a teenager for taking part in demonstrations against the government, and has been sentenced to be beheaded and then crucified. Although contradictory information has emerged since September as to whether al-Nimr’s death sentence will be carried out, he is being held in solitary confinement on death row.



Al-Saud sisters with their mother
The Al Saud sisters with their mother in the 1980’s

Little attention, however, has been paid to the plight of Sahar, Jawaher, Hala and Maha Al Saud, the four daughters of the late King Abdullah.

To be sure, the Badawi and al-Nimr cases are egregious and deserve the attention they are getting. But the case of the four princesses is equally compelling. Jailed by their father, their situation was dire while he was alive. In April of 2014, the New York Post described their imprisonment: deprived of food, water, and medical care, trapped in small overheated rooms in the desert so that they suffer from dehydration and heat stroke, and subjected to beatings by their own half-brothers.

In March of 2014 the mother of the four imprisoned women was able to give an interview to a British television station, which lead to some publicity, and in November of 2014, Amnesty reported that

Earlier this year, two of the king’s daughters, Sahar Al Saud and Jawaher Al Saud, aged 42 and 38 respectively, announced that they and their two other sisters, Hala Al Saud, 39, and Maha Al Saud, 41, had been prevented from moving freely for over 13 years. All four women have reportedly been detained in a padlocked and guarded villa within the grounds of the royal compound in Jeddah since 2001, and have been prohibited from leaving the compound and from travelling within Saudi Arabia or abroad.

One of the women has told Amnesty International that she and her sisters have been ill-treated by their guards and are denied adequate food. Amnesty International has also been told that Hala Al Saud and Maha Al Saud are being denied access to medical treatment for the illnesses from which they are said to be suffering.

You may be wondering, what was the egregious crime these women committed to warrant such treatment? They spoke out for Saudi women’s rights. The 2014 New York Post article reported, “when the sisters openly spoke in opposition to women being illegally detained and placed in mental wards, the king had enough and no longer considered them his daughters.”

As daughters of the King, the four women probably thought that they were in a better position that most to speak up for all Saudi women, and tried to use their influence. As a result, they have been imprisoned under harsh conditions for 14 years.

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Jawaher and Sahar Al Saud

While King Abdullah was alive, the four were unjustifiably held captive, but they were allowed internet access and used it to advocate for themselves on Twitter. Since his death, not only have the women’s twitter accounts been deleted, but the account of their mother in London has also been deleted, suggesting that she has been threatened. Today, no one seems to even know what happened to them. They have disappeared.

In the time since Abdullah’s death, calls have gone out to the new King to offer clemency to Badawi from Amnesty, Prince Charles, and others. In August the Independent reported that

While he has been in prison, [Badawi] has received a number of awards for promoting freedom of expression and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. Human rights groups have called for a concerted international effort to secure his freedom.

A spokeswoman for the [British] Foreign Office said: ‘We have raised Raif Badawi’s case at the most senior levels in the Government of Saudi Arabia and will continue to do so. We understand that Mr Badawi’s case is still with the Supreme Court.

‘The British Government’s position on human rights is a matter of public record. We regularly make our views well known including through the UN Universal Periodic Review process and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual Human Rights and Democracy Report.’

Only Phyllis Chesler and Washinton Post reporter Ishaan Tharoor have spoken up for Sahar, Jawaher, Hala and Maha Al Saud.  Even though Amnesty did report on the situation of the Al Saud sisters in November of 2014, it seems far more invested in Badawi’s case, even asking the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia “to ensure that Raif’s case is at the top of his in-tray.”

Other than Chesler, the feminist world is predictably, sadly, silent. Self-important liberal men like Glenn Greenwald who criticize Saudi Arabia on human rights are similarly oblivious to the jailing of the four sisters. Ultra-liberal Huffington Post wrote about Badawi, al-Nimr, and three other men, but also ignored the four women. The US State Department’s report on human rights in Saudi Arabia for 2014 also does not mention them.

I’m a big fan of UN Watch and Hillel Neuer, but I would really love to hear Neuer’s explanation of why Badawi’s case is worthy of his attention, but the case of the Al Saud sisters is not. Only Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain has raised the issue within the UN Human Rights Council.

Saudi Arabia is certainly being given the message that, while it may face criticism when it violates human rights of male activists or dissidents, when it violates women’s human rights, no one cares.

The treatment of Badawai and Al-Nimr is deplorable, of course. The unjust treatment of the Al Saud sisters is equally so, but like so many women who are mistreated within the Arab world, almost no one speaks out for them.

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