WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he has pressed Saudi Arabia to release US citizens detained in a crackdown on women's rights activists in the conservative kingdom.
Pompeo - who usually treads lightly on airing concerns with Saudi Arabia, which has close ties to President Donald Trump's administration - said that he personally had spoken to Saudi officials "about every single American who we know to be wrongfully detained."
"We've urged them to make a better decision, saying that those folks need to be released," Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"It's inconsistent with the relationship between our two countries. We don't think it's in the Saudis' best interest to do this either," he said.
Pompeo declined to name the US citizens detained by Saudi Arabia. But he was asked about Salah al-Haidar, the son of high-profile women's activist Aziza al-Yousef, by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who said Haidar lived in his state of Virginia.
In addition to Haidar, campaigners say that the other detained US-Saudi dual national is writer and doctor Bader al-Ibrahim.
The latest round-up started last week after 11 women including Yousef returned to court to face charges that include contacting foreign media, diplomats and rights groups. Some of the women have alleged torture including sexual abuse in prison.
The women have campaigned for the right to drive - a decades-old ban that was lifted last year - and to abolish a guardianship system that gives men arbitrary authority over women.
Trump ambassador at last in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia has faced heated criticism from US lawmakers after the killing in October inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who had written critically about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Trump administration has restricted visas to a number of Saudi officials as retaliation, but said it wants to preserve a warm relationship due to the kingdom's purchases of US weapons and shared hostility to Iran.
Senators nonetheless on Wednesday easily confirmed Trump's choice to be the US ambassador in Riyadh, John Abizaid, a top US general from the Iraq war.
A fluent Arabic speaker of Lebanese Christian descent, Abizaid wrote his master's thesis at Harvard University about Saudi decision-making on defense spending - an issue that will be sure to come up as ambassador.
Ninety-two senators voted to confirm Abizaid. The seven senators who voted against him included four seeking the Democratic nomination for president - Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - with a fifth candidate, Cory Booker, not voting.
Trump has been slow to fill key positions, often saying that he wants to shake up Washington. But the absence of an ambassador in Riyadh, nearly two years into his presidency, has been especially glaring.
Lawmakers have also defied Trump by seeking to cut off US support for Saudi forces in Yemen, alarmed at the persistent civilian casualties in the country that the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.