A prisoner released, &c.

Loujain al-Hathloul (Courtesy of the Hathloul family)
On Saudi Arabia, U.S. presidents, Putin’s victims, musical greats, and more

Readers of National Review are familiar with Loujain al-Hathloul. She is a Saudi democracy advocate and human-rights campaigner. In 2018, Saudi authorities arrested and imprisoned her. Thereafter, they tortured her, of course. That’s what they do.

I podcasted with Loujain’s brother Walid in 2019 (go here). Along with other siblings, he has campaigned for Loujain’s release. Last month, I wrote a piece about Loujain and her case (go here).

On Wednesday came welcome news:

Saudi Arabia released Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists, from prison on Wednesday in the clearest sign yet that the kingdom’s leaders were taking steps to assuage President Biden’s complaints about human rights violations.

Loujain is still under tight restrictions. She is forbidden to travel, for example. But she is now out of prison.

“She was a powerful advocate for women’s rights,” said Biden in remarks at the Pentagon, “and releasing her was the right thing to do.”

You may recall that Donald Trump’s first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia. When he landed, he said, “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

That is music to dictators’ ears, of course. As they see it, it’s their job to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, how to worship, etc. In other words, it’s their job to dictate.

The United States needs its alliance with Saudi Arabia, for better or worse. But that does not mean that we are without leverage, and it does not mean we have to forget our values — what we stand for in the world, what our reason for being is.

Recently, I read on a conservative website that Biden had “lectured” Putin in a phone call. You recall that Trump used the same word (or a cousin) in Saudi Arabia: “We are not here to lecture.” What does “lecture” mean? Bring up human rights? The rule of law? Elementary justice?

Did Reagan lecture the Soviet government, the Cuban government, and so on? I suppose you could put it that way. The way I saw it, he was standing for basic principles.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In my experience, almost no one is for human rights across the board. Most people are for human rights selectively.

When I was coming of age, people on the left were interested in human rights in three countries, primarily: the Philippines (ruled by Marcos), Chile (Pinochet), and, above all, apartheid South Africa. They tended not to evince much concern about people behind the Iron Curtain, or in China, let’s say.

In recent years, the Right has been hot for human rights in Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran, which is great. But the world is wide, and the injustices are many.

Think of Saudi Arabia, and Putin’s Russia, and Sisi’s Egypt, and Erdogan’s Turkey. Think also of Xi Jinping’s China and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. For a long while, Trump was playing kissy-face with Kim. With Xi, too.

“A great guy,” said Trump of Xi. “A terrific guy.” “A very special person.” “A very good man.” “A great leader.” “A very talented man.” “He loves China, I can tell you. He loves China. He wants to do what’s right for China.”

Blah blah blah. Nauseating stuff.

The wind shifted in 2020, however. Let me quote from a post I wrote about John Bolton’s memoir:

“In today’s pre–2020 election climate, Trump has made a sharp turn to anti-China rhetoric,” writes Bolton. So true. And his supporters have followed suit. I have noticed this even down at my level. What I mean is this: For years, my Trumpite critics bashed me as a warmonger for my views on the PRC. But in the last few months, some have claimed I’m in bed with the Party.

A whip-lashing pivot.

Yup, and they’ll pivot again, as people do. The wind blows one way, and then another. People get blown along too. Currently, the Right is in an anti-China mood. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Who knows what the Left’s concerns and passions will be?

It was interesting to see them go hard against Putin.

But let me return to Saudi Arabia, where I began. The most prominent political prisoner in that country is Raif Badawi, who blogged, advocating basic human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. He has been imprisoned since 2012. (Also lashed.) His wife and children are exiled in Quebec.

Maybe the U.S. will make a point of Badawi’s release? I gather we are done playing kissy-face with the king, crown prince, and the rest.

One more thing, before I move on. Biden tweeted,

I spoke today with President Xi to offer good wishes to the Chinese people for Lunar New Year. I also shared concerns about Beijing’s economic practices, human rights abuses, and coercion of Taiwan. I told him I will work with China when it benefits the American people.

That sounds right to me.

• I recommend an article by Bobby Ghosh, headed “Iran Drops the Fig Leaf of Its Nuclear Fatwa.” Ghosh begins,

As red herrings go, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s “fatwa,” or religious ruling, against nukes has grown funky with age. But that hasn’t stopped officials in Tehran from airing it when convenient, or kept their counterparts in Washington from breathing it in.

The subject is very grave, of course — but I couldn’t help being tickled by what Ghosh said on Twitter, about his article: “Fatwa, shmatwa.”


National Review readers are familiar with Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader — former lieutenant to Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in 2015 (within sight of the Kremlin walls). Twice, Kara-Murza was poisoned. Twice, he survived.

In 2017, I wrote about Kara-Murza in a three-part series: here, here, and here.

Did you see this report, out this week?

Based on an analysis of travel records of known members of the poison squad from the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute previously implicated in the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and three other Russian activists, we have now established that this unit also systematically tailed Vladimir Kara-Murza before both his first and second medical emergencies.

Have some more:

Crucially, members of this FSB unit had shadowed Kara-Murza on a campaign trip outside Moscow that ended less than 48 hours before his first poisoning incident. The FSB unit then resumed following Kara-Murza approximately five months after he returned from treatment in the USA. The same team would continue tailing him until he was poisoned for the second time on 1 February 2017.

Whaddaya know?

Over and over, critics of the Kremlin fall out windows, trip on the stairs, get in the way of bullets. They are very careless, these critics. Clumsy, too.

Let me quote from my Kara-Murza series:

People will tell you that these endless incidents can’t be pinned on Putin and his men. While running for president, Donald Trump defended Putin, saying, “It’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody. So, you know, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country.” Vladimir Kara-Murza makes three pertinent points.

1) Putin has control over the police, the judiciary, and the media. Good luck convicting him or his agents.

2) We should ask the old question Cui bono? Who benefits from these killings and maimings?

3) There is an unusually high mortality rate among people who oppose Putin or work as independent journalists in Russia. This is “a mortality rate that defies any statistical model,” as Kara-Murza says.

One of my favorite sayings comes from Garry Kasparov, the great chess champion who became a great freedom champion: “I believe in coincidences. I also believe in the KGB.” Same with me. Same with anybody who is conscious.

Kasparov has been known to share jokes, from Russia. Here is a recent one, following mass protests: “The police reported several hundred protesters on Saturday, and several thousand of them were arrested.”

Bernard Lewis, the late, great historian of the Middle East, used to collect jokes, from societies all over. He said that they told you something about that society.

You know this one from Turkey, don’t you? A prisoner goes to the prison library, and asks for a certain book. The librarian says, “We don’t have the book. But we have its author.”

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, issued a tweet:

First Navalny was poisoned. Now he’s been jailed. Peaceful protesters across Russia are being suppressed. Just the latest in Putin’s long campaign to subvert democracy and the rule of law. The U.S. and our allies must continue strong measures to hold Putin and cronies to account.

Holy-moly. That sounds like Republicans of old. May it last a while . . .

• This has not been a very fun Impromptus, my friends — I apologize. Let me make up for it a little with some music, here at the end.

Paul Jacobs, the great American organist, and chairman of the relevant department at Juilliard, wrote a memorial tribute to his teacher and predecessor, John Weaver.

At the organ console, John Weaver resembled a large kid playing in a tiny sandbox, but his imposing physical stature belied a modest nature and genteel personality. . . .

As a teacher, Weaver’s influence on the American organ scene was profound. Generations of students, including myself, eagerly absorbed his ideas. Having spent two years at the West Point Military Academy, John was a stickler for punctuality and order. . . .

But he was hardly rigid when it came to musical interpretation. “Organ playing should be exciting — this is rule number one,” he would say, “And if you have to break all the other rules, so be it!” . . .

John gave differently but generously to each student, and a few years ago I expressed the impossibility of repaying him for everything he had done for me. He replied, “Don’t try, you can’t. But do it for others.”

I love that — all of it.

• Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, gave a recital from Vienna, via livestream. For a little post I wrote about it, go here.

• February 10 was the birthday of a soprano I have written a lot about: Leontyne Price, from Laurel, Miss. She turned 94. On YouTube recently, something I had never seen popped up: Price on The Ed Sullivan Show, in 1961. She is singing “The Lord’s Prayer” (in the setting by Malotte). Also, this great soprano is singing in a markedly mezzo-y voice!

Here it is.

She is one of the greatest singers, and greatest musicians, of all time. One afternoon, talking with her, I referred to her as a “musician.” She said, “Thank you for calling me a musician.” Usually, she was called “singer” or “opera star.” But, man, what a musician.

And it was good to be with you today. Have a wonderful weekend. No Super Bowl — but we’ll find ways of keeping ourselves occupied.

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