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Saudi Princess Basmah Bint Saud Bin Abdulaziz speaks during a discussion on the role of women in the Middle East at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2017.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

News of Princess Basmah Bint Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s release from prison came to light earlier this month, but questions remain as to whether she has freedom of movement and if she can leave Saudi Arabia for the medical treatment she needs. Three years later, it is also not clear why she was arrested in the first place.

In March, 2019, the then-55-year-old Basmah was en route to Switzerland with her daughter Souhoud al-Sharif. The purpose of the trip was for Basmah to get medical treatment for a heart condition. Both women were intercepted and imprisoned in Section B9 of al-Ha’ir prison, just south of Riyadh.

Section B9 has a reputation for housing unfavoured royal family members, political rivals, dissidents and anyone Saudi authorities believe should be silenced.

Before she was arrested, Basmah was known for many things besides her royal status. The youngest daughter of Saudi Arabia’s late King Saud has been a working journalist, a successful entrepreneur and an avid advocate for human rights.

“She has been a peacemaker since the 1980s,” the princess’s legal adviser, Henri Estramant, told The Globe and Mail recently from his offices in Belgium. “This is what makes her so special. She has been a stateswoman, albeit denied any political office or participation because of her gender. She was also an expert in security affairs, so it is ironic that she was locked up in a prison for terrorists.”

There have been recent reports that the royal was opposed to the consolidation of power and a clampdown on dissent led by her cousin Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely referred to as MBS). His actions have occurred under his father, King Salman – also Basmah’s paternal uncle – who acceded to the throne in 2015.

The princess was also outspoken about the kingdom’s treatment of women and its rigid guardianship laws. Mr. Estramant said the issue that likely instigated her arrest was her stand against Saudi Arabia’s actions in the Yemeni conflict. “We believe what really touched a nerve was her overt criticism of the raging war in Yemen – described by the UN itself as the most relevant humanitarian crisis in our time.”

While the princess was detained, Mr. Estramant said that as her lawyer, he could not communicate with her directly. “I could merely exchange messages with her through her immediate family. Only they were able to speak to her during the first months of her incarceration.”

But he lobbied the case to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.S. Department of State, and the European Parliament. Finally, almost three years after her arrest, both the princess and her daughter were released on Jan. 5.

“Credit is due to the U.S. State Department for including the case of Princess Basmah in their human-rights report about Saudi Arabia, and to MEP Eva Kaili for lobbying to include the case in a European Parliament motion concerning Saudi Arabia,” emphasized Mr. Estramant.

As soon as she was released, Mr. Estramant said the princess was taken to a hospital in Riyadh as there were concerns for her deteriorating health. “She spent the day there and then arrived home in Jeddah on January 6. The Saudi authorities finally released the princess because her health was declining dramatically. It was a humanitarian matter. She has a heart condition and needs medical care outside the country.”

The first to share the news on social media of the princess’s release was ALQST – an independent NGO founded in 2014 by Saudi human-rights defender Yahya Assiri. Along with other NGOs, ALQST (pronounced al-kist, it means justice in Arabic) documented, lobbied and publicized the case.

“The princess’s recent release – like that of the women human-rights defenders – is the result of hard-fought advocacy and international pressure around her case,” said Josh Cooper, the organization’s deputy director from London.

Mr. Estramant says he believes that other minor princes (those who do not hold the HRH title but are scions of the kingdom’s founder) who had been held on charges of corruption, were also released around the same time as the princess.

“Princess Basmah was the only female detainee from the Royal House, and the only one not accused of any corruption – so her arrest was a political one.”

Mr. Estramant says there are indications that the regime’s leadership is seeking to improve the rule of law in Saudi Arabia. “The country is going in the right direction with the release of prominent activists like the princess herself but also people like Loujain al-Hathloul,” he said, referring to the human-rights activist who was detained in May, 2018, for campaigning for a woman’s right to drive weeks before the ban was lifted in the country.

Ms. al-Hathloul was released in February, 2021. Also last year, Saudi Arabia released two other prominent human-rights defenders – Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah – who were held in detention for three years and freed after the expiry of their sentences.

Mr. Cooper – on the other hand – doesn’t believe the princess’s release signals any improvements with the human-rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

“Repression in Saudi Arabia is continuing to escalate, including with new arrests, harsh sentences and abuse in prison – indeed there are many still in detention whose lives remain at risk, including as a result of medical negligence.”

He says that it is very welcome that another woman detainee held arbitrarily has now been released, but it does not mark a shift regarding the wider situation for women in Saudi Arabia. “Other women activists released continue to face strict conditions, and are silenced from speaking out.”

While Mr. Estramant welcomes the move by the royal court and the country’s crown prince, more questions linger over the princess’s release and what it means for her future.

“Right now, the princess must focus on her health even if help must be flown in from abroad,” he said. Not only does Basmah have a long-standing heart condition, she also suffers from osteoporosis. It remains unclear if Basmah will be able – and allowed – to travel for treatment.

Mr. Estramant says that the emphasis will then be to engage in a process of reconciliation within the House of Saud. “HRH Basmah extends her hand to the future monarch, Mohammed bin Salman. Even though the two are cousins, they are not acquainted with each other on a personal level,” he said.

What also remains unclear is the treatment Basmah received while she was imprisoned. In April, 2020 – 13 months after she was detained – the princess had tweeted that she had done nothing wrong and that she was facing “very critical” health issues. Her tweets – apparently somehow sent from the prison – were reported to have been quickly deleted.

ALQST states that while the princess was imprisoned, she was denied the medical care she needed. “Princess Basmah and her daughter were subjected to many violations in detention, including the denial of family visits, and the denial of health care for a potentially life-threatening condition,” Mr. Cooper said.

“The prison where she was held is infamous,” Mr. Estramant said. “But I believe the time will soon be right for Princess Basmah to tell the story of her captivity in its entirety, herself.”

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