Come to Amer­ica, MbS. But free these ac­tivists first.

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man is on a mis­sion to charm the West. The 32-year-old de facto leader of one of the world’s largest oil pro­duc­ers paid a visit to Bri­tain last week and is due in the United States next week. His sup­port­ers tout him as a bold mod­ern­izer who is mod­er­at­ing the se­vere Saudi ver­sion of Is­lam, grant­ing greater free­doms to women and in­tro­duc­ing des­per­ately needed eco­nomic re­forms. While other Arab states lean to­ward Rus­sia, the crown prince ap­pears ea­ger to dou­ble down on Saudi bonds with the West.

All that is true to an ex­tent, and wel­come. Saudi women will fi­nally be al­lowed to drive in June, and guardian­ship rules con­trol­ling them have been loos­ened. Re­li­gious po­lice have been reined in, and cin­e­mas are open­ing. The prob­lem is that the lib­er­al­iz­ing steps have been ac­com­pa­nied by even bolder acts of re­pres­sion. Hun­dreds of Saudi busi­ness­men and princes were ar­rested late last year and forced to hand over bil­lions of dol­lars in as­sets to Prince Mo­hammed or the gov­ern­ment with­out due process. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the New York Times, at least 17 were hos­pi­tal­ized for phys­i­cal abuse, and one, a ma­jor gen­eral, died.

Those in the West who sup­port the cause of Saudi mod­ern­iza­tion, and busi­ness­peo­ple who may wish to in­vest in it, badly need re­as­sur­ance. For­tu­nately, there is a ready way for the crown prince to of­fer it, even be­fore he ar­rives in Wash­ing­ton: He can re­lease some of the dozens of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers who were jailed for ad­vo­cat­ing some of the very re­forms he is at­tempt­ing to ad­vance.

Prime among them is Raif Badawi, a blog­ger and ac­tivist who chal­lenged the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment and ad­vo­cated women’s rights. He was ar­rested in 2012 and in 2014 was sen­tenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes — 50 of which were cru­elly de­liv­ered in a pub­lic square three years ago. In re­sponse to in­ter­na­tional protests, Saudi of­fi­cials have hinted that Mr. Badawi could be par­doned, but he re­mains in prison. Now is the time to free him.

The same goes for mem­bers of the Saudi Civil and Po­lit­i­cal Rights As­so­ci­a­tion, who called for po­lit­i­cal re­forms and the rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law. A court dis­solved the group in 2013, and most of its mem­bers re­main im­pris­oned. So, too, do Mo­hammed al-Otaibi and Ab­dul­lah al-At­tawi, who were sen­tenced to long prison terms in Jan­uary for found­ing a hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Union for Hu­man Rights, in 2013.

When The Post’s David Ig­natius asked the crown prince last month whether he would re­lease some of the po­lit­i­cal de­tainees be­fore his U.S. visit, the prince replied, “If it works, don’t fix it.” But if his mod­ern­iz­ing is work­ing, why does he need to im­prison peace­ful ad­vo­cates of mod­ern­iza­tion? He should fix that be­fore he ar­rives in Wash­ing­ton.

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