A Saudi princess and human rights advocate has returned to her home in Jeddah after three years in a state prison without charge, her supporters and lawyer have confirmed.
Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, 57, a staunch critic of her cousin and Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, Mohammed bin Salman, was released on Saturday, along with her daughter, Souhoud al-Sharif, who was arrested with her in March 2019.
Mystery surrounds the pair’s detention and release, which was met with silence by Saudi officials over the weekend. However, announcing her arrest on Twitter a year after she vanished, Princess Basmah claimed to have done no wrong and was facing “very critical” health issues.
Her tweets, which were apparently sent from detention, were quickly deleted, broke news of her disappearance 13 months earlier. The move appeared to fit a pattern of the arrest of dozens of Saudi dissidents and attempts to spy on activists in exile.
Saudi dissidents and rights activists say Princess Basmah had been especially vocal about a crackdown on dissent and consolidation of power led by Prince Mohammed. She had also been critical of the Kingdom’s treatment of women, who had little ability to shape their lives under the kingdom’s heavily restrictive guardianship laws – some of which have been revoked in the past three years.
“She thought that her family connections would give her cover,” said one senior Saudi royal in exile. “But MbS has locked up bigger family members than her.”
They include two brothers of the Crown Prince’s father and the incumbent monarch, King Salman, and a former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who remains under house arrest in the kingdom after being ousted by Mohammed. Princess Basmah is the youngest child of the late King Saud, who ruled from 1953 to 1964.
In bulldozing through a reform agenda that has introduced a range of individual freedoms, Mohammed has at the same time consolidated power like few other Saudi leaders before him. A ruthless crackdown on dissent has been a centrepiece of his new regime, with critics, or political activists given no leeway and in some cases jailed indefinitely.
Princess Basmah’s legal adviser, Henri Estramant, confirmed on Saturday: “The two ladies were released from their arbitrary imprisonment, and arrived at their home in Jeddah on Thursday 6 January 2022.
“The princess is doing fine but will be seeking medical expertise. She seems worn out but is in good spirits, and thankful to reunite with her sons in person.”
Princess Basmah was detained in al-Ha’ir prison, where numerous other political detainees have been held, including the activist Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent advocate of allowing females to drive in the kingdom. She was released in February last year and has not since spoken publicly about her ordeal, which her family has said involved physical abuse and torture.
Several senior Saudi officials familiar with Mohammed’s thinking say he is sensitive to being seen as making concessions under political pressure, and wants reforms to be seen as a gift from on high, rather than bowing to demands.
“Many of the things that are being demanded publicly are already being delivered,” one official told the Guardian last September. “In the eyes of the leadership, [activists] went too far.”
However, human rights groups and dissidents in exile insist that dissent remains fundamental to a functional society and that even by the standards of an absolute monarchy, the domestic fear surrounding Mohammed’s rule has been disturbing.
“This is quite the police state now,” said one activist based in North America. “No one feels safe, and that’s how he likes it.”
Princess Basmah had been due to travel abroad for medical treatment around the time of her arrest in and was informed after her detention that she was accused of trying to forge a passport, a close relative said at the time. The nature of her illness has never been disclosed.
Following her release, rights group ALQST for Human Rights said: “She was denied the medical care she needed for a potentially life-threatening condition. At no point during her detention has any charge been levelled against her.”
In written testimony to the UN in 2020, Princess Basmah’s family said her detention was likely due in large part to her “record as an outspoken critic of abuses”. She was also deemed an ally of Mohammed bin Nayef, the written testimony added.
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