US decision not to punish Crown Prince puts us in grave danger, Saudi exiles say | Mohammed ben salman
Exiled dissidents who were warned against them by Saudi Arabia said they had been put at risk by the Biden administration’s decision to waive direct sanctions against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – even as US intelligence agencies admitted he was an accomplice in the murder. by Jamal Khashoggi.
Activists, including some who had previously been warned they risked being injured by agents of the kingdom, said in interviews with the Guardian they believed the 35-year-old crown prince would be emboldened after the denial of the White House. to sanction it.
“The publication by the Biden administration of the ODNI report [into Jamal Khashoggi’s murder] transparency is welcome, but the absence of direct accountability will give MBS permanent impunity, making it more dangerous, ”said Khalid Aljabri, the son of a former Saudi official who lives in exile in Canada and whose brothers and sisters sisters, Omar and Sarah, are being held in the kingdom.
“He probably thinks he can get away with future assassinations as long as he doesn’t leave fingerprints,” Aljabri said.
The view was shared by a number of Saudis and others who are seen by Prince Mohammed as enemies of the kingdom.
In Norway, pro-democracy activist İyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian critic of the crown prince who lives under asylum protection, was transported to safety in April 2019 following a CIA report that he faced a potential threat from Saudi Arabia. Arabia.
“I’m actually less secure now than before. The combined facts of [the US saying] “Yes, he did” and “No, we can’t do anything about it but punish some of his acolytes” is very dangerous. What does this normalize? »Said El-Baghdadi.
“In my mind, that can’t be it. It looks like the folks in the White House are thinking about conventional foreign policy and they need to wake up. They bring a knife to a shootout.
Another high-level dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who was a close associate of Khashoggi and was warned last summer by Canadian authorities that he was a “potential target” of Saudi Arabia, said he was obvious that the crown prince “can do what he wants”. .
“No one is going to stop him, no one is going to punish him, they are going to call him a bad guy,” said Abdulaziz, who is Saudi, and whose family and friends have been imprisoned in the kingdom. “I try to be optimistic here, but justice has not been served.”
He also noted with concern the recently reported case of a Montreal-based Saudi activist Ahmed Alharby who sought asylum in Canada and was allegedly returned to the kingdom under mysterious circumstances following a visit to the consulate. Saudi Arabian in Ottawa. According to the Toronto Star, a new Twitter account owned by Alharby has started posting positive posts about Saudi Arabia, in stark contrast to previous criticisms of Alharby.
Saudi officials in Canada did not respond to requests for comment.
In Washington, the Saudi academic and activist Abdullah Alaoudh | praised the administration’s new “Khashoggi ban”, a policy which the State Department says gives it additional tools to protect journalists and dissidents, but said Prince Mohammed was “off the hook nonetheless” .
Under the policy, the ministry said it would now be allowed to restrict the issuance of visas to anyone who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, engages in “serious extraterritorial counter-dissident activities”, including including repression, harassment, surveillance and threats.
“This ban is aimed at preventing agents of foreign governments from committing yet another gruesome murder like Khashoggi’s all over the world,” a State Department spokesperson said. But the US government has declined to say whether Prince Mohammed himself is one of 76 Saudis who have been placed on the visa ban list.
Alaoudh, whose father is a prominent reformist and Saudi scholar on death row in a Saudi prison, said the new policy was a “big deal” but did not represent “responsibility or justice.”
He pointed out that shortly after the administration released the report along with sanctions against some Saudi officials, his colleague Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Dawn, a pro-reform group started by Khashoggi, tweeted in arab about an editorial the two wrote together call “MBS” – as it is known – a thorn in the world and the Saudi people.
“It has been read by tens of thousands of people, but this tweet elicited almost 3,000 responses from Saudi robots, with attacks and slanders against it,” he said.
“If the intention [of the administration] was to send a message to this guy, well the mission was not completed. It is exactly the same environment, or worse, that led to Khashoggi’s murder, ”Alaoudh said.
Hala Aldosari, another Saudi dissident in the United States who focuses on women’s rights, said she was forced to cut ties and work with Saudi women because they were being watched in their homes and had been investigated and tortured for associating with her. .
“In the charges against [some women] activists, my name came. I was considered a hostile agent, ”Aldosari said.
The Biden administration has pointed to the case of prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was recently released from prison but still faces severe restrictions and a travel ban to Saudi Arabia, as a sign of progress. But Aldosari said there was no sign of the Saudi regime changing course.
“I don’t think the Saudi regime is ready to compromise. Since the coming to power of Mohammed ben Salman, it has been a question of centralizing power and becoming the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. It’s not something you can solve by making a classified report transparent, ”she said. “There must be a visa ban, asset bans for Mohammed ben Salman.”
There are practical issues with the security precautions taken by Aldosari, such as avoiding Saudi embassies and consulates, meaning she was unable to access her father’s legacy.
“As a person, of course, I am afraid that I cannot see my family, I cannot contact them and speak to them freely. I still have the feeling that they could be affected. And I think all activists in the diaspora have these kinds of issues and issues, so they can’t be close to their own families, ”she said.
When asked if she thought she could live more easily now, given the support of the new administration, she replied “of course not”. Although she said she was grateful for Biden’s personal support of Loujain al-Hathloul – whose name he mentioned upon his release – she said it was important to remember that even that pressure didn’t did not ensure Al-Hathloul’s freedom or ability to return. work as an activist.
“If this happens to someone whose name has been negotiated at the highest level, you can imagine what could happen to people like us,” she said.