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Saudi activists give evidence of human rights violations to British MPs

View of the River Thames and the House of Commons, the British parliament, seen on March 22, 2017 in London, England [Ray Tang / Anadolu Agency]
View of the River Thames and the House of Commons, the British parliament, seen on March 22, 2017 in London, England [Ray Tang / Anadolu Agency]

A panel of leading human rights organisations, NGOs and British MPs today discussed the ongoing detention of two senior Saudi princes while listening to testimonies about the Kingdom's increasing level of rights violations. The online meeting saw the panel of parliamentarians and international lawyers discussing the imprisonment of former Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef and Prince Ahmed Bin Abdul-Aziz by the regime in Riyadh.

Chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, the panel included Conservative MP Imran Ahmad Khan, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, Adam Coogle, the human rights lawyer and director of MENA Rights Group Ines Osman, and Saudi journalist Safa Al-Ahmad from the human rights organisation ALQST. They were joined by prominent Saudi activists such as Abdullah Alaoudh, the son of detained Saudi scholar Salman al-Ouda, and Alia Al-Hathloul, the sister of the jailed Saudi women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul.

Alaoudh mentioned the Kingdom's kidnapping of dissidents in other countries, as happened to Loujain Al-Hathloul in the UAE. Similar methods were also employed in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, and the failed attempt to kidnap former Saudi security chief Saad Al-Jabri in Canada.

Saudi Arabia continues to conceal its human rights abuses

This, said Alaoudh, is the result of the deterioration of Saudi Arabia's already poor human rights record. Following Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's appointment in 2015 and the ousting of Bin Nayef, the Kingdom has seen an "unprecedented concentration of power" under the ambitious prince. Bin Salman is now the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Since that palace coup, he has implemented a series of social and economic reforms ranging from allowing women to drive to the abolition of gender-segregated public space. Such reforms, however, are described as superficial as they do not include political reforms which advance democracy in the Gulf state. According to Alaoudh, there is still no independent civil society and any discussion of human rights issues is seen as "conspiring against the state".

The superficiality of the reforms is part of Saudi Arabia's huge public relations campaign, said Alia Al-Hathloul, and does not represent the reality there. She cited the justice system as a key example of this. The judge in her sister Loujain's trial was, for example, reportedly awaiting orders rather than acting independently. It is also evident in the Kingdom's other bodies, such as its Human Rights Commission, which she said are not independent but subject to government control.

The laws covering prisoner rights that Saudi Arabia does have, explained Ms Al-Hathloul, are on paper only, and twisted to make sure that they are not effective. An example she gave was when her sister was sent for a medical check-up but was forced to speak only Arabic to the English-speaking doctor who could not understand her. All of this, she pointed out, was done as part of the Saudi authorities' extensive use of torture on her sister and other detainees.

"We hear the word 'torture' and forget what it really means," she told the panel. "It took months before [Loujain] admitted that she was tortured because she was so scared… she thought that she was going to die."

Jailed Saudi rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul begins hunger strike

The panel was also told by the women's rights campaigner Bethany Al-Haidari about the horrific conditions inside Saudi prisons. "We've heard reports of minors in prison being raped to death and moderate clerics being sodomised to death," she explained.

According to the ALQST's Safa Al-Ahmad, the monarchy does not benefit directly from its human rights violations at home and abroad. The primary aim is to silence Saudis through fear and by warning them not to criticise its policies or demand rights.

The panel session, hosted by the London-based law firm Bindmans LLP, was held four days before the virtual G20 Leaders' Summit is set to be hosted controversially by Saudi Arabia. In a press release announcing the discussion, it was announced that the Saudi Ambassador to London, Prince Khalid Bin Bandar Bin Sultan Al-Saud, was invited to join in the panel discussion but did not respond.

The conclusions and recommendations of the panel, based upon the evidence presented, are set to be published by the parliamentary panel later this year.

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