The UK Foreign Office has been urged by a cross party group of British MPs to intervene to secure the safety of three prominent Gulf human rights activists, including Saudi women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, who are thought to be at risk from the coronavirus outbreak still present in prisons across the region.
The MPs calling for a Foreign Office human rights intervention include the father of the house Peter Bottomley and they see the three cases as a test for the UK human rights policy in the coronavirus era. The letter coincides with the UN international day for victims of torture on Friday, and all three 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 will not be able to speak to them again for many months.
The campaigner for the women’s right to drive was arrested in May 2018 and although women can now drive in the kingdom, there appears no prospect of her release, or even 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.”
Caroline Lucas, one of the MPs part of 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.”
Brendan O’Hara MP, Argyll & Bute, 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”. Despite successive hunger strikes, he has been held in solitary confinement and is said to have neither a bed nor access to water.
His state of health has deteriorated sharply, his supporters said. New coronavirus cases in the UAE have spiked up to 450 new cases per day and Human Rights Watch has reported outbreaks in UAE jails. Total deaths across the UAE has reached 307.
The third activist for which concern is expressed by the MPs is Abduljalil Al Singace, a Bahrain activist sentenced to life for criticising the government. Bahraini activist, Maryam Al Khawaja, whose father Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is also at Jau Prison along with Al Singace, reported that there are 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, but there was a spike last week with new infections currently running at 550 per day.
Partly on the advice of British public health advisers, the king has pardoned 901 prisoners while more than 500 more will be allowed to serve out their sentences outside prison.