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Saudi Arabia targets family of ex-spy chief in effort to force him home

Authorities arrested Saad al-Jabri's children and brother in an attempt to coerce him to return from Canada, sources say
Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has centralised power and get rid of any opponents to his ascension to the throne (AFP/File photo)

Human rights advocates are calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately release the family of former intelligence official Saad al-Jabri - who is living in exile in Canada and resisting pressure from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to return to the kingdom.

Jabri, who was a key go-between for Western spy agencies, sought refuge in Canada in 2017 days before his former boss, Mohammed bin Nayef, was ousted by his younger cousin MBS in a palace coup.

Middle East Eye reported in March that after fleeing from Riyadh in 2017, Jabri was "chased" by Saudi authorities who were willing to do "anything to get him back".

Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday that after Saudi authorities arrested bin Nayef and Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a younger brother of King Salman, earlier this year, Jabri's children were subsequently detained in a bid to coerce him back to Riyadh.

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Saudi authorities had frozen the children's bank accounts and confiscated their financial assets after their father left in 2017, HRW said. Both were also interrogated separately about their father's whereabouts in 2018. 

The children were reported to have been summoned from the Presidency of State in early March and were told by security officials that their father "must return to the kingdom," the rights group said.

It added that less than a week later, on 16 March, Jabri's son Omar, 21, and daughter Sarah, 20, were dragged out of their beds at 6am by armed security officers. 

Family members told reporters last week that after weeks of failing to discover the whereabouts of Omar and Sarah, they felt pressured into raising the issue publicly, describing the kidnappings as "daylight thuggery by a state".

Jabri's brother, Abdulrahman, a professor of electrical engineering in his sixties, was also taken, they said.

According to the rights group, no charges have been laid against the three and no reason has been given for their detention.

"It has been weeks and we don't know where they are," Khalid, another of Jabri's sons was quoted as saying. "They were kidnapped from their beds. I don't even know if they are alive or dead."

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Omar al-Jabri was detained along with his sister in March (Courtesy of Omar al-Jabri's classmate)

'Enforced disappearance'

One of Omar al-Jabri's former classmates slammed the arrests as "disgraceful" and "immoral," calling for the immediate release of the detainees.

"Omar al-Jabri is a kind-hearted, caring and considerate friend, who was very popular amongst his classmates and a brother-like figure," the individual, who requested anonymity, told MEE on Tuesday.

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"What has happened to him is shocking, disgraceful, and quite frankly, immoral. He and his imprisoned family members should be released immediately and given complete freedom to travel outside the kingdom."

Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, also denounced the arrests, saying the children had been held incommunicado since March.

"Saudi authorities are sinking to new lows in going after the families of former officials out of favour with the current leadership," he said.

"How can anyone describe the Saudi leadership as reformist while it's arbitrarily detaining the children of former officials?"

HRW said the arrests may qualify as an "enforced disappearance".

From the US to Canada

Sources told MEE earlier this year that shortly before Jabri went to Canada where he secured refuge in November 2017, he spent a brief period in Boston.

Despite Jabri having extensive relationships with the US intelligence community as bin Nayef's aide, the former intelligence official did not feel safe with Donald Trump in power.

Members of the US Congress, and high-ranking officials in other countries, have accused the White House of ignoring human rights abuses under MBS' leadership and of Trump giving the crown prince a pass after the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Canadian government's assistance to Jabri and his family is believed to have sparked tensions with the kingdom which eventually led to a diplomatic row between Ottawa and Riyadh in August 2018.

Despite Jabri never publicly criticising MBS, a source familiar with his situation told MEE that his loyalty to bin Nayef, and his decades-spanning knowledge of the inner workings of the kingdom's powerful interior ministry, made him a target of the young crown prince.

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"Let's assume that there might be a coup in Saudi," the source said. "He's the biggest threat. He would have the money and power to do something."

A second source said that while in Canada, Jabri received intimidating messages from MBS. There was also concern that there was a rendition attempt to bring him back to the kingdom.

Since deposing bin Nayef three years ago, MBS has centralised power and targeted any and all perceived foes and potential opponents. He's arrested several members of the royal family, including Prince Faisal bin Abdullah al-Saud, the son of the late King Abdullah.

MEE reported in March that four members of the Allegiance Council had been targeted by MBS. Three members had been either jailed or questioned, while a fourth obtained nationality from Cyprus in a bid to escape.

Last month, Saudi Princess Basma bint Saud pleaded to the king for mercy and to release her from prison, citing her health being in critical condition. It was the first time she spoke out since being reported missing a year ago.

In recent weeks, some imprisoned members of the royal family have even sought the help of US lobby firms to convince Congress and the Trump administration to push for their release.

"Saudi Arabia's recent justice reforms have not curbed the authorities' contempt for the rule of law," HRW's Page said.

This shows "the country needs a full overhaul of the justice and security sectors."