Monday, July 29, 2019

No One Is Safe: How Saudi Arabia Makes Dissidents Disappear

Brutal Saudi Crown Prince MBS.
Saudi Arabia is allegedly an ally of the United States notwithstanding the reality that it supplied the vast majority of the 9-11 hijackers and is the leading financier of the indoctrination of Islamic extremism in the world. Moreover, it treats those perceived to be dissidents in a manner all too reminiscent of the Gestapo's approach to perceived enemies of the Nazi regime: one disappears or ends up dead. Human rights violations are the norm and there is no respect for the borders of other sovereign nations as "enemies" of the brutal regime are hunted down.   Indeed, Saudi Arabia in many respects ought to represent the type of regime America opposes.  Yet, thanks to oil and likely shady dealings between the Saudi regime and Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, Saudi Arabia gets special treatment and the Trump/Pence regime looks the other way as human rights abuses pile up and a reign of terror continues against those labeled and "dissidents."  A long piece in Vanity Fair looks at this behavior of America's false ally.  Tell you representatives in Congress to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. Here are article excerpts:
Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud sat in one of the few safe locations he frequents in Düsseldorf and ordered each of us a cup of coffee. With his close-cropped goatee and crisp gray suit, he looked surprisingly relaxed for a hunted man. He described his constant fear of being abducted, the precautions he takes when venturing outside, and how German law enforcement officials routinely check on him to make sure he is all right.
Recently, bin Farhan, who rarely grants interviews to Western reporters, had incensed the kingdom’s leaders with his calls for human rights reforms—an unusual grievance for a Saudi prince. What’s more, he spoke openly of his desire to establish a political movement that might eventually install an opposition leader, upending the kingdom’s dynastic rule.
As we sat over coffee, he relayed a story that at first sounded innocuous. One day in June 2018, his mother, who lives in Egypt, called him with what she thought was good news. The Saudi Embassy in Cairo had contacted her, she said, and had a proposal: The kingdom wanted to mend relations with the prince and was willing to offer him $5.5 million as a goodwill gesture. Since bin Farhan was struggling financially (reportedly due, in part, to a dispute with the ruling family), his mother welcomed this chance for a reconciliation. But as tempting as the overture was, he claimed he never considered it seriously. And when he followed up with Saudi officials, he realized the deal had a dangerous catch. They had told him he could collect his payment only if he personally came to a Saudi embassy or consulate. That immediately set off alarm bells. He declined the offer.
Two weeks later, on October 2, 2018, bin Farhan saw a startling news report. Jamal Khashoggi—the Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post columnist who had been writing articles critical of his homeland and working clandestinely to undermine some of the government’s social media initiatives—had gone to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up paperwork required for his pending marriage. Minutes after his arrival—as revealed in leaked audiotape transcripts compiled by Turkish authorities—Khashoggi was tortured and strangled by a Saudi hit squad. His body was then presumably carved up with a bone saw, the remains later carted away. The assassination was condemned by nations around the world, though Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and others in the Trump administration are still on close terms with the Saudi leadership and have continued to conduct “business as usual” with the kingdom. 
Among those present at the consulate the day Khashoggi was killed was Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a close aide to Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially referred to as M.B.S., who since 2015 has been steadily consolidating power. Mutreb, according to the transcripts, made multiple calls during the ordeal, possibly to Saud al-Qahtani, the kingdom’s cybersecurity chief and overseer of clandestine digital operations. He may have even phoned M.B.S. himself, who was singled out this spring in a scathing U.N. report, which found “credible evidence” that he was likely complicit in Khashoggi’s “premeditated execution” . . . . Mutreb—well-known in diplomatic circles, and one of the advisers who accompanied M.B.S. on his high-profile visit to the United States last year—gave a particularly chilling sign-off: “Tell yours: The thing is done. It’s done.”Omar
Abdulaziz, like bin Farhan, is a Saudi dissident. An activist living in Canada, he had been an associate of Khashoggi’s. Together, they had planned to publicize the plight of the kingdom’s political prisoners and tried to sabotage the Saudis’ online propaganda efforts by sending out anti-government videos, mobilizing followers, and devising social media schemes to counterprogram messages posted by the regime.
Abdulaziz met me in a Montreal hotel where, the previous year, he had been living in hiding. . . . In May 2018, he said, two representatives of the royal court had shown up in Canada, bearing a message from M.B.S. The pair, accompanied by Abdulaziz’s younger brother Ahmed, a Saudi resident, arranged a series of rendezvous in Montreal cafés and public parks. They encouraged him to stop his activism and return home, urging him to visit the Saudi Embassy to renew his passport. The implicit understanding, he told me, was that if he continued with his political activities, his family might be endangered.
Abdulaziz became convinced that his brother was under duress from his Saudi companions. He recorded their conversations. He decided to turn down their offer. But his choice, he acknowledged, came with a heavy price. When his brother returned to the kingdom, according to Abdulaziz, he was put in jail, where he supposedly remains to this day. A month after his brother’s visit—and four months before Khashoggi’s murder—Abdulaziz discovered that his phone had been hacked, compromising sensitive plans he had been developing with Khashoggi.
Saudi officials did not answer VANITY FAIR’s questions about whether the kingdom attempted to forcibly repatriate Omar Abdulaziz and several others mentioned in this report.
The prince, the activist, and the officer are the lucky ones. They are merely three examples of the untold number of dissidents who have become entangled in a far-reaching dragnet the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia uses to coerce, bribe, and entrap its critics. Sometimes the Saudi enforcers send operatives to foreign countries to silence or neutralize their perceived foes. Of those who are caught and detained, many end up “disappeared”—a phrase popularized in Latin America during the deadly roundups of the 1970s and ’80s. Some are imprisoned; others are never heard from again. While the first known Saudi abduction occurred in 1979 (when a prominent dissident vanished in Beirut), the practice has only escalated on M.B.S.’s watch.
The targets tend to be those whom the Saudi leadership consider to be working against the interests of the state: dissidents, students, rogue royals, prominent businessmen, and M.B.S.’s personal enemies in nearly a dozen countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Switzerland, Germany, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco, and China. Saudi Arabian residents, of course, are not immune. This past April, 37 Saudis accused of insurgent views, including a man who was a minor when taking part in student demonstrations, were executed. 
Through interviews on three continents with more than 30 individuals—activists, national security experts, relatives of the forcibly disappeared, and American, European, and Middle Eastern government officials—a clearer picture has emerged about the extent to which Saudi authorities have gone to imprison, repatriate, and even murder countrymen who dare to protest the kingdom’s policies or somehow malign the image of the nation. On these pages are the stories of eight recent abductees—and those of four others who managed to elude capture—part of a systematic program that goes far beyond the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi campaign is ruthless and relentless. And it has more similarities with, say, the codes of a crime syndicate than it does with those of a traditional, modern-era ally of the United States of America. 
Just days after Khashoggi’s murder, the kingdom rushed to contain the diplomatic fallout by calling the crime a “rogue operation.” But it was hardly an anomaly. It soon came to light that the regime had been sending squads across sovereign borders to physically repatriate Saudi dissidents. Indeed, shortly after the grisly hit job in Istanbul, a journalist from Reuters, who was briefed in Riyadh by an unnamed government official, was presented with what the reporter described in an article as “internal intelligence documents which appeared to show the initiative to bring back such dissidents as well as the specific one involving Khashoggi. 
Similar threats have surfaced in Canada (as described above) and Europe. In April, Iyad el-Baghdadi, an exiled Arab activist living in Oslo, was surprised when Norwegian security officials came to his apartment. According to el-Baghdadi, they told him they had received intelligence, passed along from a Western country, that suggested he was in danger. . . . El-Baghdadi had been warned that M.B.S.’s leadership considered him an enemy of the state. In fact, according to el-Baghdadi, just weeks before the Norwegian officials paid him a visit, he had been helping Amazon determine that its CEO, Jeff Bezos, had been the subject of a Saudi hack-and-extortion plot. The Norwegians were not taking any chances, as el-Baghdadi recalled; they whisked him and his family to a safe house.
Some of these missions to silence or harm Saudi critics have occurred in countries closely allied to Riyadh. One brazen operation in France, for example, involved Prince Sultan bin Turki, who had lived in Europe for years. A grandson of King Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder, the prince had a longtime feud with powerful members of the monarchy, having accused them of corruption.
Like bin Turki, two other notable princes, both living in Europe, were similarly kidnapped. Prince Saud Saif al-Nasr, while residing in France, tweeted a message publicly endorsing a 2015 letter by activists calling for a coup. He would mysteriously disappear. One exiled Saudi friend of his told me that he believes the prince had been lured into participating in a dubious business project that was actually a ruse meant to force him to come to the kingdom against his will. A second prince, Turki bin Bandar—a senior officer in the Saudi police force who had fled to Paris—used his YouTube channel to demand political change back home. He even recorded and posted a phone conversation in which a Saudi official could be heard trying to tempt him to come home. In 2015, however, he was stopped at an airport in Morocco on what Rabat authorities claimed was an Interpol warrant and forcibly transferred to Saudi Arabia. 
[W]ell-heeled princes are not the only targets of the long arm of the regime. So, too, have been a variety of others, including businessmen, academics, artists, Islamists critical of the regime, and, according to Reporters Without Borders, 30 journalists who are currently in detention. 
Also at risk, according to academic and diplomatic sources, are Saudi foreign exchange students. Some who have been vocal about the kingdom’s human rights record have suddenly had their financial aid suspended. One graduate student—as revealed in emails obtained from the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC—was informed that the only way to resolve an impending suspension would be to immediately return to Saudi Arabia to file an appeal. The case of Abdul Rahman al-Sadhan is particularly troublesome. A Saudi citizen—and the son of an American—al-Sadhan was a 2013 graduate of Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. After earning his degree, he returned to the kingdom to be part of what he thought would be a changing nation. He worked for five years in the Saudi Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian organization. Then, on March 12, 2018, uniformed men showed up at his office, saying he was wanted for questioning. He left with the authorities and, according to his U.S.-based mother and sister, would never be heard from again. 
The day after al-Sadhan disappeared, another student, Loujain al-Hathloul, vanished as well. Enrolled at Abu Dhabi’s Sorbonne University campus, she got into her car after a brief meeting, never to reappear at school. . . . Al-Hathloul would later resurface in a Saudi prison. According to accounts provided by human rights organizations, she was subjected to torture and sexual harassment. And during her periodic visits with family members, she identified one of the men who was involved in her interrogation: Saud al-Qahtani.
The Saudi government, despite multiple accounts to the contrary, denies it has tortured its detainees. The perpetrators of these crimes may never be brought to justice.

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