The owner of the Evening Standard and Independent has reinforced his ties to the authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reveals Sam Bright

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The UK-Russian newspaper proprietor Lord Evgeny Lebedev has joined the board of a non-profit enterprise created by the Saudi Government, holding his position alongside Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who, according to US intelligence services, personally approved the capturing and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The enterprise is called Hevolution – founded to research the science of anti-ageing, which is a preoccupation of many wealthy ‘philanthropists’.

“It’s time to focus science and business on ageing as a treatable process, not just on its terminal symptoms,” its website states.

Funded by the Saudi state, Hevolution reportedly has an annual $1 billion budget to fund the science of increasing the healthy human lifespan.

The head of the Hevolution board of trustees is Crown Prince bin Salman, the authoritarian ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The board also includes Abdullah bin Bandar Al Saud (Minister of the Saudi National Guard), Yasir Al-Rumayyan (Governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund), Fahad Toonsi (advisor to the Saudi Royal Court) – and, of course, Evgeny Lebedev.

Screenshot: Hevolution website

Lebedev, born in Moscow but now a British citizen, is the proprietor of the Evening Standard and the Independent, after Lebedev Holdings – funded by his father, Alexander Lebedev – purchased the titles in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Alexander Lebedev was a director of Lebedev Holdings from 2008 to 2016.

Evgeny Lebedev became a member of the House of Lords in July 2020 after being nominated by Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister reportedly pressured the UK security services to reverse their assessment of the appointment, with the initial intelligence advice being that “there could be a threat to national security”.

According to reporting by The Times, Johnson “took a personal interest in the case” after meeting with Lebedev in March 2020 – following an initial rejection of the peerage. “A former advisor said [that Johnson] refused to accept the verdict of the security services and would not drop the issue,” The Times has reported.

The minutes of this discussion between Johnson and Lebedev were not recorded. The Prime Minister denies that he overruled security advice but has said that “it’s very, very, very important that we get the message over that we’re not anti-Russian”.

Despite this, the Government has so far refused to release information about the decision to make Evgeny Lebedev a peer, having been instructed to produce this evidence by Parliament.

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Alexander Lebedev, Evgeny’s father and the source of the family’s wealth, was a KGB officer in London from 1988 to 1992.

Moving into the financial sector, Lebedev senior amassed vast personal wealth – listed as the 39th richest Russian by Forbes in 2008, with an estimated wealth of $3.1 billion, which diminished after one of his Russian newspapers published an exposé about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his alleged affair with a famed gymnast.

Evgeny Lebedev is a renowned figure in London high society and has seemingly been a close acquaintance of Crown Prince bin Salman for some time. Indeed, Evgeny hosted a dinner with him in 2018, during the latter’s state visit to the UK. They were joined by Virgin co-founder Richard Branson, whose spokesperson confirmed bin Salman’s attendance.

Moreover, Lebedev Holdings – which in turn owns the Evening Standard and Independent – has been accused by the UK Government of being part-owned by the Saudi state, due to a series of “unconventional, complex and clandestine” deals involving a Saudi businessman that resulted in a 30% acquisition of the firm.

The Government initially sought to investigate the deal, suggesting that the Saudi Government could now potentially exert editorial influence over the publications. However, a tribunal ruled in 2019 that the Government had missed the deadline to force a full investigation into the investments.

“Editorial independence and freedom of expression have always been, and continue to be, critical to our publications,” a spokesperson for the media outlets said after the ruling.

Yet, there are reasons to doubt this statement. As revealed by Byline Times last year, the two publications accepted an undisclosed sum of money from Saudi Arabia to publish dozens of positive environmental stories about the country before, during, and after the COP26 UN climate change summit in Glasgow.

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Special Relationships

These links are particularly concerning given the Saudi Government’s repression of freedom of speech and the press. Most grotesquely, former Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.

Khashoggi was a critic of Crown Prince bin Salman’s regime, having previously been an advisor to the Saudi Government. He fell out of favour and went into self-imposed exile in the US in 2017.

American intelligence agencies concluded that Crown Prince bin Salman “approved an operation in Istanbul to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi” – a conclusion backed-up by UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, who accused the Saudi state of the “deliberate, premeditated execution” of Khashoggi.

Crown Prince bin Salman has denied any role in the murder and has said that the US intelligence report is “negative, false and unacceptable”.

However, reports of Saudi human rights abuses are widespread. The Kingdom reportedly executed 81 people just days before Boris Johnson’s recent trip to Riyadh, and three on the day he arrived.

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“Saudi authorities in 2021 routinely repressed dissidents, human rights activists and independent clerics,” according to the monitoring organisation Human Rights Watch. “Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest.”

Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the country’s prolonged war in Yemen, which it has waged for the best part of the last decade – claiming 377,000 lives, according to the UN, by the end of 2021.

The UK has approved £11 billion in military exports to Saudi Arabia since 2010 – comfortably the largest total exported to any country in the world – despite the country featuring on the UK’s human rights watchlist. Of the licenses granted, £6.2 billion was for ‘aircraft, helicopters, drones’ and £4.3 billion was for ‘grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures’.

Boris Johnson has been courting the Saudis in recent months, encouraging the Gulf state to invest heavily in the UK as part of his Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. He used his recent trip to Riyadh to push the Saudis to increase their energy output, in order to compensate for declining imports from Russia.

Asked about criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record during the trip, the Prime Minister said: “I’ve raised all those issues many, many times over the past… and I’ll raise them all again today. But we have long, long standing relationships with this part of the world and we need to recognise the very important relationship that we have… and not just in hydrocarbons.”

Johnson also has a special relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, having regularly visited the Lebedev family home in Perugia, Italy, during his time as London Mayor and Foreign Secretary – including two days after a high-level NATO summit April 2018 focused on the West’s response to the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury.

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Johnson seemingly abandoned his security team for this trip – a breach of government protocol – and was pictured at San Francesco d’Assisi airport looking dishevelled, clutching a book about war strategy. Alexander Lebedev attended this party and reportedly offered to mediate between Johnson – at the time the UK’s Foreign Secretary – and Vladimir Putin.

Johnson also celebrated his landslide victory in the 2019 General Election by attending Alexander Lebedev’s 60th birthday party; while Byline Times has revealed how Evgeny Lebedev attempted to lobby Johnson, while he was London Mayor, to support his pet projects – including a Russian Arts Festival in the capital.

Minutes from the meeting show that the festival was aimed at “transforming global perceptions” of Russia and that Lebedev boasted of his links to the Kremlin as a means of obtaining funding. Ultimately, Johnson provided no support and the event didn’t materialise.

Alexander Lebedev has recently been sanctioned by Canada, for being among those who had “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine”. These sanctions haven’t been matched by the UK. Lebedev senior severed his links with the Independent the day after he was hit with the sanctions.

“Lord Lebedev was nominated for a peerage in recognition of his contribution to the UK, including his charitable endeavours,” a Government spokesperson said. “All peerages are vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the process was followed correctly in the case of this nomination. The then Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Bew, has since made clear that no pressure was exerted on the Commission on this matter”.

Neither Hevolution, the Independent, nor the Evening Standard responded to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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