(WASHINGTON) — Ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest visit to Saudi Arabia, top lawmakers have urged him to raise the case of an American citizen who has been reportedly tortured while in Saudi custody.
Before arriving in Riyadh Wednesday afternoon, Pompeo said he was “sure I’ll bring up that issue and a wide range of human rights issues as well.”
Dr. Walid Fitaihi is a dual Saudi-American citizen who was detained for 21 months by Saudi officials — arrested in late 2017 as part of the sweeping crackdown orchestrated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against wealthy Saudis that he accused of stealing from the kingdom. Fitaihi and his family allege that he was tortured by Saudi officials once — slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear, bound to a chair, and shocked with electricity, they told the New York Times.
A Saudi official denied that Fitaihi was tortured, telling ABC News last August the reports “are without foundation. … The Law of Criminal Procedure and other legal provisions in the Kingdom prohibit torture and hold accountable anyone involved in such abuse of power.”
Fitaihi was released from custody at the time, the official said, but he and his family — all U.S. citizens — have been barred from leaving the country while he awaits trial, according to the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Saudi Arabia, like several other countries, only recognizes the citizenship of their nationals, even if they are dual citizens.
Fitaihi became a U.S. citizen while in medical school in the Boston area, where he worked as a doctor for years before returning to his native Saudi Arabia in 2006 to found a hospital. His case has sparked fierce bipartisan condemnation in Congress — even prompting Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to say the crown prince had gone “full gangster.”
Before Pompeo left Ethiopia for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the House Foreign Affairs chairman and ranking member, urged him to raise Fitaihi’s case.
“It has been a consistent priority of the United States — throughout Democratic and Republican administrations — to free Americans abroad from unjust detention,” they said in a letter. “We urge you to build on these successes and press the Saudi government to resolve the case against Dr. Fitaihi and allow him and his family to come home to the United States.”
Five Democratic senators sent Pompeo another letter, with almost the exact same language calling for him to press senior Saudi officials about Fitaihi’s case. But in their note, Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Ron Wyden of Oregon added, “We urge you to also advocate for the rights of all those unjustly detained in Saudi Arabia, especially American citizens.”
There are several high-profile cases of Saudi dissidents or political activists who remain imprisoned, especially women’s rights activists that demonstrated for the right to drive and a loosening of the male guardianship rules over women’s lives. Under Crown Prince Mohammed, sometimes known by his initials MBS, some of those rules have been relaxed, including granting women the right to drive.
But the most prominent female activists have remained imprisoned since then, and four have said they have been tortured, according to human rights groups.
Loujain al Hathloul, detained since May 2018 for her work promoting women’s rights in the kingdom, including defying the previous ban on women driving, turned down an offer to finally secure her freedom, but only if she denied being tortured while in custody, according to her family.
A Saudi official denied she was tortured, too.
The Trump administration has been criticized by both sides of the aisle in Congress for doing little to condemn the Saudi government’s human rights record, including denying that MBS played a role in the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The administration has defied several orders from Congress to provide an accounting of what role the Crown Prince played in the gruesome murder.
En route to Riyadh, Pompeo was asked by the traveling press if he would raise Fitaihi’s case: “I’m sure I’ll bring up that issue,” he responded, adding that on trips to the kingdom as CIA Director and now the top U.S. diplomat he’s “raised these important issues, the issues that matter a lot to the American people.”
But Pompeo’s focus, he implied, would be on the threat from Iran: “We’ll spend a lot of time talking about the security issues with the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said before taking questions from the press.
In particular, he was asked about a rocket attack Saturday in Baghdad that hit an Iraqi base in the Green Zone where U.S. and coalition troops are housed. While there were no casualties, Pompeo said there “has be accountability connected to those very serious attacks.”
“It cannot become an ordinary course that the Iranians through their proxy forces in Iraq are putting into the lives of Americans and our allies at risk,” he added, per the pool. “This can’t be ordinary. This can’t be routine.”
He also chastised the Iraqi government, saying they have a responsibility to keep U.S. personnel safe and they have “repeatedly not been able to achieve that.”
Still, Pompeo said he will not “broadcast” any potential U.S. response.
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