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Saudi Arabia’s War on Academics, Intellectuals and Human Rights Defenders

Days before Saudi Arabia hosts the G20 Summit, British MPs have been told the kingdom is experiencing one of the worst periods of repression in recent times, reports Steve Shaw

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018. Photo: PA

Saudi Arabia’s War On Academics, Intellectuals and Human Rights Defenders

Days before Saudi Arabia hosts the G20 Summit, British MPs have been told the kingdom is experiencing one of the worst periods of repression in recent times, reports Steve Shaw

Prisoners detained in Saudi Arabia have been beaten, raped, had limbs broken and even been murdered, according to human rights organisations that have given evidence to a panel investigating the detention of human rights activists and two senior princes.

A cross-party group of British MPs, including Conservatives Crispin Blunt and Imran Ahmad Khan, and Liberal Democrat Layla Moran heard testimony from human rights organisations during a virtual session held on 17 November – just four days before the Saudi kingdom hosts the G20 Leaders Summit.

The Panel’s primary mandate is to investigate the whereabouts and detention conditions of the former Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef (commonly known as MBN) and Prince Ahmed Bin Abdul-Aziz. Both have reportedly been detained at an unknown location without legal advice or medical care for over six months.

MBN was next in line to be King of Saudi Arabia but was ousted by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in 2017 following a power struggle. The New York Times said at the time, the senior prince was “held against his will and pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne”. He agreed in less than 24 hours. In March of this year, MBN was arrested along with MBS’ uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, a former interior minister. Since then, the pair have essentially disappeared.

Finding answers looks like a near-impossible task for the panel. Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch told the MPs that even the most basic details of the arrests are “quite opaque and unclear” but it appears that they are “accused of either fomenting a coup against Mohammed bin Salman or of massive corruption”. But these allegations should be “taken with a total grain of salt” given that the trials and due process for others accused of similar crimes has been “absolutely nil”. He went on to explain that almost no information can be given about the two princes as their “place of detention is completely unknown”, even to their lawyers.

Waves of Arrests

The arrest of the senior princes is part a massive crackdown under the crown prince which Coogle described as “the worst period of repression of civil and political rights in modern Saudi history”. After MBS came to power in 2017 by ousting numerous officials, he took over the persecution service and reorganised the state security apparatus so that it was only those loyal to him who would have control.

What followed was “waves and waves of arrests” of academics, intellectuals, human rights defenders and women standing up for their rights. Among them was Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah whose son, Abdullah Alaoudh also gave evidence to the panel. “MBS has exercised his power to conduct wide-scale arrests of those who are perceived to have independent power centres in the country,” explained Alaoudh. “Including the country’s intellectuals, independent religious leadership, business and media establishments, royal rivals and civil society reformists. This includes of course my father Salman al-Odah who has been really vocal for decades and has been one of the most important Islamic scholars in the kingdom.”

Alaoudh said MBS was responsible for the kidnapping, and in some cases, the killing of many activists. This includes Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi who is believed to have been brutally murdered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.

He acknowledged that MBS had eased some of the restrictions on women in the kingdom, including allowing them to drive and releasing them from the “male guardianship” scheme which gave their husbands complete control of their lives. But he pointed out that the women who campaigned for these changes still “languish in prison and have faced sexual harassment, torture and electrocution”

Further testimony included shocking details from The Freedom Initiative’s Bethany al-Haidari who described detainees being murdered, having “toes and limbs intentionally broken”, and in juvenile detention centres, children being “raped to death”.

Zero Accountability

Despite Saudi Arabia’s gruesome record, the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the injustices. As the kingdom gears up to host the virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit on 21 November, it is likely that few of the world’s major economies will be willing to hold the host nation to account. This is made no clearer than when seen through the context of the arms industry.

Saudi Arabia’ bloody war on Yemen has been MBS’ war since it began in 2015. The crown prince was defence minister when the country led a coalition of other Middle Eastern nations and began an unrelenting bombing campaign against one of the poorest countries on earth. Since then there have been wide-spread allegations of war crimes including the bombing of schools, weddings, funerals and homes. Yemen’s infrastructure has been devastated, it has the largest outbreak of cholera on record and it is facing a famine which World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley has called a “countdown to catastrophe”. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people have been killed.

Yet it has been supported by countries such as the UK, France and the US, who all claim to stand up for international law. Oxfam has revealed that since the war began, G20 nations have exported more than $17 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and given only a third of that amount in aid to Yemen. When arms sales to other members of the coalition are taken into consideration, that amount rises to at least $31.4 billion between 2015 and 2019.

The killing of Jamal Khashoggi, was branded a “barbaric act” by the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, before taking the role of Prime Minister, said Britain would “refuse to turn a blind eye”. Johnson’s idea of not turning a blind eye apparently did not include the arms industry as ministers signed off on £650 million worth of arms sales to the Saudis in the six-month period following the murder. 

One country that was willing to take action was Germany, which did freeze arms exports. That ban is still in place, despite the UK’s former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt reportedly telling Berlin he has “grave concerns” about the impact the ban will have “on the supply chains of UK and European defence industry”. War crimes and human rights abuses seemed not to be one of his “grave concerns”.

Neither were they Johnson’s when, during his time as Foreign Secretary in 2016, he recommended the UK allows the Saudis to buy bomb parts for use in Yemen just days after the bombing of a potato factory, which killed 16 people. Their deaths, thousands of miles away from Westminster, did not seem important enough to warrant his grand declarations about not turning a blind eye.

During the parliamentary panel investigating detentions in Saudi Arabia, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt said it had been challenging to get anyone to come forward and speak on behalf of the Saudi Government and “there may be reasons why its public diplomacy is conducted the way that it is”.

But Safa Al Ahmad, Acting Director of the Saudi human rights NGO, ALQST, told Blunt the actions of the Saudi Government are “impossible to defend”. She said: “They are a dictatorship, they have no intention of improving unless there is actually real pressure and intent and there isn’t so far. The G20 happening in Saudi Arabia this weekend is proof that they think they have gotten away with it. They are immune to any international pressure; all the leaders are going.”

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