The Trump White House’s mysterious and controversial relationship with Saudi Arabia is under fresh scrutiny over the case of a US-Saudi citizen who has reportedly been jailed, beaten and tortured in the kingdom.
The fate of physician Walid Fitaihi is again raising the question of whether strongmen leaders who are crucial to the personal political projects of administration power players are getting a pass on human rights.
Fitaihi was detained in a sweep against prominent Saudi figures orchestrated by the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in November 2017 and was initially held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.
His lawyer said he was then transferred to prison, where he has been held for nearly a year without due process, a period in which his health and emotional state have deteriorated.
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was in Saudi Arabia last week to push his Middle East peace initiative and is close to the Crown Prince. But there has been no public indication that Kushner advocated on behalf of Fitaihi or inquired about the terms of his detention.
There is already bipartisan anger in Washington over the administration’s response to the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.
CNN has reported that US intelligence agencies have concluded that the killing and dismembering of the journalist was ordered by the Crown Prince, despite the Saudi government’s denials.
The administration infuriated senators by ignoring a February deadline to provide a report on the murder, and Trump has repeatedly warned that Saudi Arabia’s purchases of US weapons and its role in helping the administration confront Iran are not worth jeopardizing over the episode.
US-Saudi relations under rare scrutiny
The fallout of the Khashoggi case and the brutality of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen have provoked rare unity in the Senate, with members of both parties questioning the utility and morality of America’s alliance with a Gulf ally that has been an anchor of Washington’s Middle East policy for decades.
Despite increasing coverage of the Fitaihi case, there is little sign that the administration is making his detention a high priority or is willing to consider it in the wider context of US-Saudi relations.
National security adviser John Bolton told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that “as of this moment, my understanding is we have had what’s called consular access, meaning American diplomats in Saudi Arabia have visited with him.”
“Beyond that, we don’t really have any additional information at this point.”
In a statement to CNN on Sunday, the State Department confirmed that Fitaihi is detained in Saudi Arabia and that he was getting consular services.
“We have raised his case with the Government of Saudi Arabia.” the statement said, and a spokesperson added that the department took “all allegations of abuse and torture extremely seriously.”
The Saudi government has yet to respond to several requests from CNN for a comment on the case of Fitaihi, who qualified for his US citizenship while studying and practicing medicine in the US and then returned to Saudi Arabia to found a hospital in Jeddah and forge a career as a motivational speaker.
In a statement to The New York Times, which first reported on the Fitaihi case, a Saudi Embassy spokesman said the kingdom “takes any and all allegations of ill-treatment of defendants awaiting trial or prisoners serving their sentences very seriously.”
The quiet US handling of Fitaihi’s detention contrasts with the way Trump has dealt with other cases of Americans imprisoned abroad. He has often boasted about getting US detainees home from North Korea, for example.
He celebrated the release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, by inviting her to the Oval Office after top aides said he had engaged behind the scenes with top leaders in Cairo to win her release.
The administration made the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey a diplomatic sticking point in the tense relations between the NATO allies. Brunson also earned an Oval Office invite to thank the President.
Trump frequently claimed credit for the return from North Korea of imprisoned US tourist Otto Warmbier even though he was in a vegetative state and later died.
Last week, after meeting with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, the President said he took at face value the North Korean dictator’s word that he did not know about Warmbier’s ill treatment in prison, earning a rebuke from the dead man’s parents.
Given the strategic importance of an American prisoner and Kim’s rule of fear, most North Korea analysts and even many of Trump’s GOP allies think the President’s comment lacks credibility.
The administration has often been selective about pointing out human rights abuses in a way that seems to align with its political priorities.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that Fitaihi told a friend he had been slapped, stripped, blindfolded and tortured with electricity before he was taken to jail from the Ritz-Carlton.
In a letter to the State Department in January, Fitaihi’s lawyer Howard Cooper said his client had been able to speak briefly to his mother on the phone. He told her that “he is fear of his life, that he cannot take his situation any longer and that he desires all help possible.”