American woman detained in Saudi Arabia over custody dispute released

An American woman who had publicly accused her Saudi ex-husband of trapping their daughter in the kingdom under so-called guardianship laws said she was released Wednesday following a brief detention over her social media posts.

Carly Morris was taken into custody on Monday and the whereabouts of her daughter, eight-year-old Tala, were unknown, according to the Washington-based Freedom Initiative, which describes itself as advocating on behalf of people wrongfully detained in the Middle East and North Africa.

But when contacted by Agence France-Presse Wednesday, Morris said she’d been freed overnight.

“I was released from jail late last night,” she told AFP.

“They detained me for two days … over my tweets,” she said.

In a voicemail sent to AFP via Whatsapp, Morris said her daughter was safe but accused her ex-husband of taking all their belongings from their hotel apartment.

“I just went to the school today to take her. … She is with me now but we have absolutely no clothes, shoes,” she said.

“He took everything.”

Morris flew to Saudi Arabia with her daughter in the summer of 2019, hoping to spend a few weeks of quality time with the girl’s father.

But soon after they landed in Riyadh, he seized their travel documents and arranged for the girl to become a Saudi citizen, ensuring he could bar her from leaving.

In September, she received a summons from Saudi prosecutors indicating she was under investigation for “disturbing public order,” a development Morris believed was linked to social media posts about her case.

She was then informed that she’d been placed under a travel ban, according to an electronic notice seen by AFP.

Morris’s ex-husband’s family hasn’t responded to AFP’s requests for comment.

Advocacy groups said the case highlights the power men continue to wield over women under the kingdom’s notorious guardianship laws.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, has earned plaudits for easing laws in Saudi Arabia that greatly restricted women’s ability to travel and work.

Yet human rights groups note that women still require a male guardian’s permission to marry, and face discrimination when it comes to divorce and custody disputes.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a press conference Tuesday that Washington was “aware of the reports that Ms. Morris has been detained”.

“Our embassy in Riyadh is very engaged on this case; they’re following the situation very closely,” he said.

Morris’s detention came amid heightened tensions between Riyadh and Washington, which has strongly objected to the OPEC+ cartel’s decision to cut oil production, saying it amounts to siding with Russia in the Ukraine war.

In July, several months before those cuts were approved, President Biden came under heavy criticism from human rights organiations for travelling to Jeddah and meeting with Prince Mohammed, reversing an earlier pledge to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah.”

Morris’s case is “yet another sign that Saudi simply does not value the U.S. as an ally,” said Allison McManus, the Freedom Initiative’s director of research.

“Before we hear any more reference to Saudi’s strategic partnership, we need to see an end to the abuse of American citizens. We need to see an end to the abuse of women and children whose only crime is their gender.”

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