BEIRUT, Lebanon. A Saudi government critic who was imprisoned nearly three years ago after publicly questioning government policies has been released, her family’s legal adviser said Sunday.
Princess Basma bint Saud returned home on Thursday with her daughter Sukhud al-Sharif, who was in custody with her, according to legal adviser Henri Estraman.
But it remains unclear whether women will be allowed to travel abroad, a pressing concern as Princess Basma requires medical care not available in Saudi Arabia due to a heart condition, Mr Estramant said.
Princess Basma was among a number of prominent Saudi activists, dissidents and members of the royal family who were imprisoned or placed under house arrest during the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has solidified his power in the kingdom since the days of his father, King Salman. ascended the throne in 2015.
Prince Mohammed is one of the most controversial rulers in the history of Saudi Arabia. He has earned praise at home and abroad for easing social restrictions and seeking to diversify the economy away from oil. But its rise has also been fueled by a disastrous military intervention in Yemen and a disregard for human rights, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
The detentions of figures such as Princess Basma fuel this criticism.
The detainees included women who campaigned for the right to drive, which was granted in 2018, and members of the royal family, whom Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials MBS, may have seen as obstacles to the throne.
Some detainees have been released, but many remain banned from traveling abroad, apparently because the government fears they might discuss their cases with foreign journalists or representatives of other governments.
According to their associates, a number of prominent figures, including two sons of the previous monarch, King Abdullah, remain in detention, and reports of ill-treatment of some detainees continue to come in.
The most famous of these is Mohammed bin Nayef, the former interior minister whom Prince Mohammed ousted as crown prince in 2017 to assert himself.
Following his removal, Mohammed bin Nayef was placed 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 matter. .
Last fall, he was moved to a villa in a complex surrounding the Al Yamamah royal palace in Riyadh, the capital where he lives, people say.
Mohammed bin Nayef is being held alone, without a television or other electronic devices, and his family only visits in limited numbers, people say. He appears to have severely injured ankles as a result of his treatment in detention, and is unable to walk without a cane.
The government did not formally charge him or explain why he was detained. Most Saudi experts suggest that the detention is because Prince Mohammed fears that Mohammed bin Nayef could interfere with his ambition to become the next king of Saudi Arabia.
A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the situation regarding Princess Basma or Mohammed bin Nayef.
Princess Basma, 58, who was released along with her daughter Ms Al-Sharif last week, has never held public office or held any power. The youngest daughter of King Saud, the second King of Saudi Arabia, Princess Basma spent most of her time in London and was best known for speaking her mind about Saudi Arabia in the media from time to time, which was rare for members of the royal family, especially women.
She criticized the kingdom’s sharia-based legal system and called on the country to adopt a constitution that protects the rights of citizens, statements for which she suffered no repercussions.
But speaking to BBC Arabic in 2018, Princess Basma accused Prince Mohammed, although she did not name him, of refusing to take in those who do not support his overhaul plans, known as Vision 2030.
“He has a vision, Vision 2030, and I see that in this vision there is a direction towards a kind of isolation of all those who do not agree with this vision,” she said.
In March 2019, police arrested Princess Basma and Ms al-Sharif, in their 30s, at their home in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Mr. Estramant said the two women were charged with unspecified “criminal offences” and held at Al-Khair prison near Riyadh, but were never formally charged with any crimes.
Saudi officials have not publicly commented on Princess Basma’s case, but in 2020 the Saudi Arabian Mission to the United Nations in Geneva told a United Nations body that she was “charged with criminal offenses related to attempting to illegally travel outside the kingdom”. It stated that Princess Basma did not stand trial.
Mr Estramant said it was not clear why the women were released, but he praised the move.
“We are delighted that the royal court and MBS have agreed to release both of them,” he said. “This is a good sign as the country continues the process of developing the rule of law.”