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Saudi Arabia detains US woman who said she had been trapped in kingdom

Carly Morris and her daughter have not left the country since her ex-husband persuaded them to visit in summer 2019
This undated handout image released by the Morris family on 21 September 2022 shows US citizen Carly Morris, at an unspecified location in the central Saudi city of Buraydah (AFP photo/Family handout)
This undated handout image released by the Morris family on 21 September 2022 shows US citizen Carly Morris, at an unspecified location in the central Saudi city of Buraydah (AFP photo/Family handout)

A US citizen trapped in Saudi Arabia in a custody battle over her eight-year-old daughter was temporarily detained by authorities this week, a rights group said on Tuesday. 

Carly Morris and her daughter Tala have been in the Gulf kingdom since her Saudi ex-husband persuaded the two to visit the country in 2019. 

On Monday, Morris was detained after being called by police in the central city of Buraydah to clarify documents, according to advocacy group the Freedom Initiative

She was held for at least a day, during which it was unclear whether her daughter was detained with her. Morris was later released, according to reports early on Wednesday. 

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington was "aware of the reports that Ms Morris has been detained". 

"Whenever a person is detained abroad, we seek immediate access to visit the individual, to aid him or her with all appropriate consular assistance," he said during a press conference on Tuesday. 

"Our embassy in Riyadh is very engaged on this case; they're following the situation very closely."

Custody battle

Morris met her husband in 2012 while he was studying in the US. The two divorced after five years of marriage in 2018.

After agreeing to visit Saudi Arabia on holiday in summer 2019 to introduce Tala to her father’s family, the Saudi man seized their documents and refused to give them back.

He later registered a hotel room, where Morris and her daughter have lived for more than three years. 

'Morris’ detention means that we’re now aware of three Americans behind bars in Saudi Arabia'

- Allison McManus, Freedom Initiative

Morris told MEE earlier this year that her husband took Tala on 30 March and didn't return her. 

"I can't believe how they could take a woman's child from her. I didn't even know where my daughter was. I didn't know where they took her," she said. 

"I didn't even know if she was alive. I sat in this hotel apartment every day for two months not knowing where my daughter was. And they were absolutely ignoring every one of my phone calls and messages. It was absolute cruelty."

Three months later, the police finally reunited Tala with her mother. During that time, Morris discovered her ex-husband was filing for custody of their daughter. She wrote a 16-page letter to the court - and on 23 August the Saudi court gave Morris full custody of her daughter.

The US citizen eventually got her passport back, but found out that her ex-husband reportedly converted Tala's US citizenship into Saudi citizenship.

'End the abuse of women'

While Morris can technically leave the country, her daughter cannot leave without her father's permission due to Saudi Arabia's legal male guardianship system

When a woman is born, her father is her legal guardian until she is married, when her husband becomes her legal guardian. Women need approval from their "guardians" to apply for passports, travel, and work at a paying job. These rules extend to foreign women who marry Saudi men, such as Morris. 

Morris has in recent months taken to social media to seek help from Saudi and US officials. 

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According to the Freedom Initiative, she was placed under a travel ban after being summoned by the public prosecutor in the Qassim province of Saudi Arabia on 15 September. She was charged with “disrupting public order” - a common charge brought against those who speak out in ways seen as critical of authorities. 

Morris’s Twitter account was deleted on Monday after she entered the police station in Buraydah. 

“Morris’ detention means that we’re now aware of three Americans behind bars in Saudi Arabia, yet another sign that Saudi simply does not value the US 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 American citizens. We need to see an end to the abuse of women and children whose only crime is their gender.” 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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