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Pompeo's 'apathy' toward jailed female activists slammed ahead of Saudi trip

Image: Saudi female activist Loujain al-Hathloul defies the driving ban in
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The sister of a female activist imprisoned in Saudi Arabia has issued a rare and emotional appeal to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pressing him to raise the detention of women's rights activists during his visit to Riyadh this week.

Alia al-Hathloul — whose sisterLoujain al-Hathloul is in jail after campaigning to earn women the right to drive — said she was "struck" by the fact that the imprisonment and alleged torture of women activists would most probably not feature on Pompeo's agenda.

"Mr. Pompeo's apathy is personal for me because one of the women detained, Loujain al-Hathloul, is my sister," al-Hathloul wrote in a New York Times an op-ed piece published Sunday.

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Al-Hathloul is not alone in her belief that Pompeo will fail to address the issue of imprisoned women's rights activists when he meets with Saudi leaders.

"The Trump administration has made it very clear from day one that human rights is not part of their foreign policy agenda — they only care about making money," said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch.

Pompeo's visit to Riyadh is part of his tour of the Middle East to reassure allies that America is not abandoning the region following plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Saudi Arabia, the site of Donald Trump's first foreign visit as president, is a linchpin in the White House's regional policies.

Pompeo's stop in Saudi Arabia comes after a runaway Saudi teenager who said she feared death if sent home was granted asylum in Canada, the latest in a series of embarrassments for the kingdom.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, fled her family on Jan. 6 and flew from Kuwait to Bangkok, where she was detained by Thai authorities. The teenager then refused to board a flight back to Kuwait, barricading herself in a hotel room and publicizing her pleas for help over Twitter.

Her case has shed light on laws and customs that rule Saudi women and girls' lives. Women, for example, have to ask permission from a male guardian before travelling or studying abroad, getting married or applying for a passport.

"Women do feel trapped and that their lives are controlled by their male relatives," said Coogle.

Pompeo was last in Riyadh soon after Washington Post journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in October. Since then, rights groups have published allegations that detained women's rights activists have been tortured. Some reports also allege that some women faced sexual harassment.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 16.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 16.Leah Millis

In her piece, al-Hathloul writes that her detained sister says she was "held in solitary confinement, beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder."

Riyadh has denied using torture against those detained, and said that the arrests have been made on the basis of suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to "enemies overseas."

Meanwhile, a female activist who participated in anti-government protests and now faces being beheaded was back in court Sunday hours before Pompeo was due to land on Saudi soil.

Israa al-Ghomgham is among five Shiite Muslim activists currently on trial and facing the death penalty in a secretive terrorism court.

Seeking the death penalty for a woman is "unprecedented" in the kingdom, according to Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia researcher Hiba Zayadin.

Ali Abdusi, director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, said al-Ghomghamwas imprisoned for demonstrating and demanding civil, political economic and religious rights.

Encouraged by the 2011 Arab Spring, Shiites in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province have protested against alleged discrimination at the hands of the Sunni-dominated government.

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The Trump administration's steadfast defense of the kingdom, and in particular of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of Khashoggi's killing, have prompted criticism even from staunch Trump allies.

The CIA has concluded that the crown prince was behind Khashoggi's death, according to a person briefed on the assessment. Riyadh has denied bin Salman ordered the killing.

The brash young royal initially won international plaudits for overseeing efforts to transform the deeply conservative kingdom, including defanging the country's feared religious police and ending a ban on women driving. More recently, he has raised alarm around the world for a widespread crackdown on dissent.

Speaking ahead of this weekend's visit to Riyadh on Sunday, Pompeo said he would continue to talk with the crown prince and the Saudis about ensuring that accountability for Khashoggi's death is "full and complete."