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Amnesty says Premier League 'risks being a patsy' as Saudi Newcastle buyout edges closer

Rights groups said there are questions surrounding Riyadh's human rights record that need to be addressed
Newcastle United is one of England's oldest and best-supported football clubs (AFP/File photo)

Amnesty International has called on the Premier League to take a serious look at Saudi Arabia's human rights record before sanctioning Newcastle United's sale to a consortium that involves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

The rights group sent a letter to the league's chief executive Richard Masters on Monday, saying there are "serious questions for the Premier League to address" concerning the deal.

The Magpies, who currently sit 13th in the league, are on the verge of being sold to a consortium largely financed by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) for around $380m.

The PIF is chaired by MBS, who rose from relative obscurity in 2015 to the top echelons of power, becoming heir apparent in 2017.

'The Premier League is putting itself at risk of becoming a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral'

- Kate Allen, executive director of Amnesty UK

He has since become the de-facto ruler of the wealthy kingdom and heads the kingdom's $320bn PIF, one of the world's most prominent sovereign wealth funds.

Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said that due to MBS' involvement, "unless the Premier League pauses and looks seriously at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, it risks becoming a patsy - a willing dupe of those trying to sportswash their abysmal human rights records.

"This is more than just a financial transaction - it's an image-building exercise that draws on the prestige of the Premier League and the passion of Newcastle United's fanbase," she said.

"At the very least, the Premier League should make a clear statement over how its owners and directors test has been applied in this case, and what assessment has been made of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record under Mohammad bin Salman’s leadership."

The football league's rules prohibit any individual from becoming an owner of a club if they have been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty; for ticket touting or scalping; or for "dishonestly receiving a [television] programme broadcast from within the UK with intent to avoid payment".

However, it does not prevent human rights abusers from becoming owners or directors of English football clubs.

Saudi 'sportswashing'

The buyout plans, which would see the PIF hold an 80 percent controlling stake, were slammed by Amnesty as a "sportswashing" exercise to boost the Saudi monarchy's reputation.

"The Crown Prince has been using sporting events and personalities as a means of improving the Kingdom's reputation following the grisly murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi," Allen said.

"Such positive associations with sporting events also distract attention from Saudi's appalling human rights record, including the imprisonment and torture of women human rights defenders."

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Since King Salman ascended to the throne, the kingdom has executed 800 people and arrested thousands, with Muslim scholars, secularists and women's rights activists rounded up by authorities.

In an attempt to improve its international standing, the kingdom has held concerts, football matchesgolf tournaments, and boxing events, many of which have been attended by high profile musicians and celebrities.

Masters has yet to comment on whether the Magpies would be sold to the Saudi fund. But in February, when asked about the possibility of a Saudi takeover, he said the test was "private and confidential" and that he could not comment.

"There are a set of objective tests which are financially related and there are also tests. And again, I am not linking this with anybody – about crimes committed overseas or activities which might be seen as criminal in this country -  might be taken into account."

It was also reported on Tuesday that a non-refundable deposit of $21m had already been paid to current owner Mike Ashley as part of the deal.