Families of imprisoned Saudis appealed Friday for the world to speak up as the kingdom hosts the Group of 20 summit, saying that challenging the kingdom's international reputation was crucial to winning their freedom.
As leaders of the world's largest economies prepared for talks Saturday that have gone virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic, activists staged a "counter-summit" in hopes of throwing a spotlight on the ultra-conservative kingdom's human rights record.
PEN America, the literary group that defends free expression, called the online forum amid continued outrage over the 2018 murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate.
"All of our relatives are in danger. They are facing the threat of what Jamal Khashoggi has seen on a daily basis," said Areej al-Sadhan, who says her brother, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, was picked by up Saudi secret police in March 2018.
"Your voices are going to help keep them safe," she said.
Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was seized in the Riyadh office of the Red Crescent humanitarian group, where he worked, after he voiced opinions on human rights and social justice on an anonymous Twitter account, according to the family.
Areej al-Sadhan, who lives in California, says she has faced shadowy threats since speaking about her brother, including a warning she was going to be "thrown into the sewer system."
One of the most prominent Saudis in custody is 31-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, a key figure in the campaign to allow Saudi women to drive who was arrested in May 2018 weeks before the kingdom lifted its ban on female drivers.
She has been on a hunger strike since October 26 when her parents visited her and found her to be "very weak and hopeless," said her sister, Lina al-Hathoul.
"We should not underestimate the power we have with our voices," Lina, who has lived in Europe for several years, told the counter-summit.
"Even one word asking about political prisoners and prisoners of conscience -- saying their names, making sure they're not forgotten -- really is something that could save them."
- Change expected under Biden -
Outgoing US President Donald Trump has aligned himself closely with Saudi Arabia, hailing its purchases of US weapons and hostility toward US adversary Iran.
Trump said of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that he "saved his ass" after a US Senate resolution, which followed a CIA briefing, found the powerful young royal responsible for Khashoggi's killing.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, told the counter-summit that he expected President-elect Joe Biden to address human rights in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom's support for a brand of Islam that "forms the building blocks of global extremist movements."
"It is past time for us to recognize that Saudi Arabia is a deeply imperfect ally and that our priorities in this relationship have been long skewed in a way that, I argue, is not to the advantage of the United States in the long run," Murphy said.
Dozens of Democratic lawmakers had urged the Trump administration to boycott the G20, seeing it as part of efforts for Saudi Arabia to rebrand itself without meaningful reforms.
Instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit in person hours after the virtual summit.
Safa al-Ahmad, acting director of the Saudi rights group ALQST, said the kingdom's outreach efforts, such as inviting Western musicians, have been geared entirely at improving its public image abroad without reform at home.
"There is a limit to the hypocrisy and the gaslighting of the Saudi government. The reality is very, very different from what the government continues to claim."