Saudi princess freed, but other royals still locked up

BEIRUT, Lebanon – A Saudi princess, a critic of her country’s government who was jailed almost three years ago after publicly questioning government policy, has been released, a family legal adviser said on Sunday.

The princess, Basmah bint Saud, returned home Thursday with her daughter Suhoud al-Sharif, who was imprisoned with her, according to legal adviser Henri Estramant.

But it is still not clear whether women would be allowed to travel abroad, an urgent issue as Princess Basmah needs medical care not available in Saudi Arabia for heart disease, Mr Estramant said.

Princess Basmah was among a number of prominent Saudi activists, dissidents and royals imprisoned or under house arrest during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated his grip on the kingdom since his father, King Salman, ascended to the throne in 2015.

Prince Mohammed is one of the most controversial leaders in Saudi history. He has received praise at home and abroad for easing social restrictions and seeking to diversify the economy away from oil. But his rise was also punctuated by a disastrous military intervention in Yemen and a disregard for human rights, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. .

The detentions of figures like Princess Basmah have fueled these criticisms.

Among the detainees were women who campaigned for the right to drive, which was granted to them in 2018, and members of the royal family to whom Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials, MBS, may have seen obstacles on his way to the throne.

Some detainees have been released, but many are still denied the right to travel abroad, apparently because the government fears they may discuss their cases with foreign journalists or officials from other governments.

A number of prominent figures, including two sons of the former monarch, King Abdullah, remain in detention, according to their associates, and information continues to come to light about the mistreatment of some detainees.

The most prominent is Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister who Prince Mohammed deposed as crown prince in 2017 to claim the title for himself.

After his deportation, Mohammed ben Nayef was under house arrest until March 2020, when he was arrested and detained.

At the start of his detention, Mohammed bin Nayef was held in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep and hung upside down by his ankles, according to two people briefed on his situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. .

Last fall, he was moved to a villa inside the complex surrounding the royal Al-Yamamah palace in Riyadh, the capital, where he resides, residents said.

Mohammed bin Nayef is being held alone without a TV or other electronic device and receives only limited visits from his family, residents said. He appears to have sustained lasting damage to his ankles from his treatment in detention and cannot walk without a cane.

The government has not filed a formal charge against him or explained why he is being held. Most Saudi experts speculate that’s because Prince Mohammed fears he may hinder Prince Mohammed’s quest to become the next Saudi King.

A spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment on Princess Basmah or Mohammed bin Nayef.

Princess Basmah, 58, who was released with her daughter, Ms al-Sharif, last week, has never held a government post or held any power. The youngest daughter of King Saud, second King of Saudi Arabia, Princess Basmah spent much of her time in London and was best known for sometimes giving opinions about Saudi Arabia to the media, which was rare. for members of the royal family, especially women.

She criticized the kingdom’s legal system, which is based on Sharia law, and called on the country to adopt a constitution that protects the rights of citizens, statements for which she suffered no consequences.

But speaking to BBC Arabic in 2018, Princess Basmah accused Prince Mohammed, albeit without naming him, of refusing to accept those who did not support his overhaul plans, known as Vision 2030.

“He has a vision, Vision 2030, and I see in that vision there is a direction towards a type of isolation from all those who don’t agree with that vision,” she said.

In March 2019, police arrested Princess Basmah and Ms. Al-Sharif, in her 30s, at their home in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Mr Estramant said the two women were charged with undefined “criminal offenses” and held at Al Ha’ir prison near Riyadh, but had never been formally charged with any crime.

Saudi officials have not publicly commented on Princess Basmah’s case, but in 2020, the Saudi mission to the United Nations in Geneva told a United Nations agency that she had been “charged with criminal offenses involving a attempt to travel illegally outside the kingdom ”. He said Princess Basmah has not been on trial.

Mr Estramant said it was not clear why the women had been released, but he welcomed the decision.

“We are happy that the royal court and MBS have agreed to release them both,” he said. “This is a good sign as the country continues its process of developing the rule of law. “

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