2 years ago, a Saudi princess was kidnapped and jailed without charge. Her family say they're being stonewalled, and are urging Biden to step in.
Princess Basma. Marcus Ingram / Getty Images; Samantha Lee / Insider
Princess Basmah, a Saudi queen and activist, was kidnapped and imprisoned in early 2019.
Her close circle said Saudi Arabia had ignored her appeals and urged Biden to intervene.
The Foreign Ministry's Foreign Office and House Foreign Affairs Committee have tried to help but are also being blocked.
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On February 28, 2019, shortly before her 54th birthday, Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was kidnapped and detained without charge in her native Saudi Arabia.
Basmah, an activist and businesswoman - and a member of the royal family - was kidnapped from her oceanfront penthouse in Jeddah by Saudi state agents that night and has since been held in a maximum security prison in Riyadh.
Now, more than two years later, her family says she is being blocked by authorities in Riyadh and urges President Joe Biden to step in.
Her condition was unknown until April 27, 2020 when she broke her silence on Twitter to ask for mercy from her cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS.
Her communication was then interrupted, but according to Insider, she was able to get in touch with her son again on May 13, 2021. It was her first contact with the family in over a year.
Basmah's family has approached the Saudi government but received nothing.
"They always say the same thing: there is no comment and no reaction," a close family member told Insider. The person asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety, but their identity is known to insiders.
Basmah's family and business associates have also tried to get the US to intervene, but they say the administration of former President Donald Trump is disinterested.
As Saudi Arabia's main Western ally, Basmah's family hoped the US would use their position to persuade the Saudi authorities to release them.
Now that Biden is in power, human rights are high on the US priority list, and progress is being made on a number of other detained activists, some of whom have been released.
Basmah speaks outside the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC on April 12, 2017. Getty
As of January 20, both the State Department and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by MP Gregory Meeks, have taken an active role in the fight for Basmah's release.
The Foreign Affairs Committee holds regular briefings with the State Department regarding Basmah's detention and has confronted Saudi officials directly with their welfare, according to a US official familiar with the discussions. The official asked for anonymity in order to speak openly, but her identity is known to insiders.
In turn, "senior foreign ministry officials raised these cases [including basmahs] with the Saudis," the official said.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman told Insider: "President Biden and Foreign Minister Blinken have both made it clear that human rights will be a priority in our bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia."
The ministry also included Basmah in its latest human rights report, a clear sign that it was ready to hold the kingdom accountable for the princess' condition.
Bricked by Saudi
But US officials have found that Saudi Arabia is less transparent about its prisoners like Basmah.
"We found it frustrating to what extent the Saudis are able and willing to get into the details," said the US official.
Insider has asked the Saudi Arabian Royal Embassy in Washington, DC for comment.
The reason for Basmah's imprisonment remains unclear.
US officials have attributed this to her close friendship with Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Saudi crown prince, who was overthrown in June 2017 and replaced by his cousin MBS. (Basmah and Mohammed bin Nayef are also cousins.)
"She had ties to MBN and that was the root of her conflict," said the official with the former crown prince's initials. MBN has been under house arrest since his impeachment in 2017 and a former intelligence officer close to him has charged MBS with attempted murder.
Basmah's family told Insider last year that their incarceration was also linked to their claim to part of a billion-dollar inheritance from their father, King Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the second ruler of Saudi Arabia.
A still image from a security tape received by Spanish newspaper ABC shows men waiting for Basmah in their penthouse in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on February 28, 2019.
"It was all talking, talking, talking, talking"
Part of the reason Basmah's case remains unsolved is because the US has put the well-being of its detained citizens and residents first, the official said, citing the Salah al-Haider, Bader al-Ibrahim and Dr. Walid Fitaihi, who are all American citizens.
The US also urged Saudi Arabia to release suffragette Loujain al-Hathloul, who is not a US citizen but had become a figurehead of the MBS crackdown on dissenting opinions.
All four were recently released from Saudi Arabia under US pressure but are still subject to travel bans.
Basmah's family want the Biden government to apply the same pressure to get their release.
And they say that time is of the essence.
Basmah has several serious illnesses, including colon and heart problems, and osteoporosis, and her family says her health is deteriorating in prison.
They became even more concerned after they called their son Ahmed al-Sharif from prison on May 13.
"She was more than finished, she was too sick, too fed up with it all, and it was a very serious, worrying call because she's a very strong person," Basmah's family member told Insider. "It's a triggering and a serious thing and a concern."
Despite the steps taken by the US government, the family member told Insider that the Biden government needs to do more.
“We're just waiting for action to be taken. From the beginning it was all talking, talking, talking, talking, ”said the family member.
Henri Estramant, Basmah's legal advisor, told Insider: "We are not looking for regime change, but rather to support the Biden government in promoting the rule of law in Saudi Arabia."
"According to the latter, the princess should already be free, since no trial has ever been called."
Basmah spoke at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC in April 2017. ALMOND NGAN / AFP via Getty
Although the US has the greatest chances of Basmah's release, the princess’s case is also supported by lawmakers in Europe.
Last October, 65 members of the European Parliament called on Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, President of the European Council, to boycott the Saudi Arabia-hosted G20 2021 over human rights concerns. He cites Basmah's case as an example.
In an insider letter dated February 23, the Foreign Office of the European Union - the diplomatic service of the bloc - informed Estramant that the bloc had "knowledge of the case".
"The EU delegation and the embassies of the member states in Riyadh have followed their situation and exchanged information about their whereabouts," the letter said.
For Basmah's family, frustrated by the lack of action in Washington, DC, an alternative popular with Saudi dissidents and exiles remains on the table: the courts.
"We're now trying to see what legal action we can take," the family member told Insider.
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