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Saudi minister defends kingdom over Khashoggi murder, Yemen war

Foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan also accuses jailed women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul of 'serious crimes' during visit to Washington
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan defends incarceration of women's rights activists (File image/AFP)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Less than two weeks after the second anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, is visiting Washington for a "strategic dialogue" with the US administration.

On Thursday, Prince Faisal spoke to the Washington Institute on Near East Policy on range of topics in which he defended the kingdom's human rights record and its relationship with the US.

The foreign minister said Riyadh is ensuring accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, constantly working to minimise civilian casualties in Yemen and detaining women's rights defenders, including Loujain al-Hathloul, over "serious crimes" that are judicial matters.

To assess his defence of Saudi Arabia's human rights record, Middle East Eye spoke with Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

Envisioned by Khashoggi, DAWN was relaunched late last month to document human rights abuses and advance democracy in the Middle East.

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On Khashoggi

Faisal bin Farhan: We are ensuring accountability

"The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was an abhorrent act, a terrible act, a terrible crime, and we have stated that quite strongly. We have taken very active measures to hold those responsible accountable," Prince Faisal said on Thursday.

Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi government agents at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The Saudi government initially insisted that he had left the building alive, before acknowledging that he had been murdered.

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Still, Riyadh insists that the assassination was a rogue operation that happened without the involvement of top officials. 

Last month, a Saudi court delivered what it called the "final" ruling in the killing, sentencing eight people to as many as 20 years in jail.

The foreign minister said the main responsibility of the state in terms of accountability was preventing similar crimes in the future. 

"We're committed to building in the safeguards and processes in our security services to ensure that something like this cannot happen again, that there is the necessary oversight, the necessary controls in place," he said. 

Sarah Leah Whitson: The actual perpetrators are still free

"In terms of ensuring that this doesn't happen again, the first and foremost requirement would be to ensure that the actual perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes," Whitson told MEE.

The human rights advocate noted that even the "sham" trial avoided indicting top officials alleged to be involved in the assassination, including Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been the target of US sanctions for his role in the killing.

Whitson said Prince Faisal's claims merit a "failing grade".

"On the most basic level, if the Saudi government is not willing to tell us where they hid Jamal's body, nothing they can say about transparency and accountability has any credibility," she said.

On Loujain al-Hathloul and political detainees

Faisal bin Farhan: They are being prosecuted for serious crimes by an independent judiciary

"They are not detained because of any human rights activity or activities related to women's emancipation. They are charged with serious crimes under our laws and everyone is equal under the law in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the foreign minister said of the detainees. 

"If you break the law, you are subject to its precepts and the prosecutor has said quite clearly that he sees... serious crimes, and the courts are independent. They will adjudicate and will take the necessary actions as they see fit. And when will they be released, this is up to the courts, not to the government."

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Over the past three years, the Saudi government has embarked on a brutal crackdown on dissent, arresting activists, journalists, religious scholars, women's rights activists and even some royals.

Hathloul and other human rights defenders have been tortured and sexually harassed in detention, according to human rights groups.

On Wednesday, Prince Faisal dismissed international criticism of Saudi Arabia. "I think everybody has the right to perceive things as they understand," he said.

Sarah Leah Whitson: Notion of judiciary prosecuting people for free expression is farcical

"The notion of an independent judiciary just doing its job in Saudi Arabia is a bit of a mockery because the laws that the judicial system has been delegated to uphold are on their face abusive, and on their face criminalise free expression, critical speech, basic everyday freedoms that are supposed to be protected by human rights law," Whitson said.

She noted that the "serious crimes" that Hathloul and others are accused of committing include innocuous activities, including applying for a job at the United Nations, or wishing for an end to the Gulf rift, as in the case of Muslim scholar Salman al-Awdah.

"It's very telling that the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia thinks it's a 'serious crime', when the citizens of his country express their opinions and wish for reform," Whitson said.

On Yemen

Faisal bin Farhan: Saudi-led coalition never targets civilians 

"No intentional indiscriminate attacks by the coalition have taken place, but there are... errors in war," the foreign minister said. 

"I mean we have seen this in many conflicts, even modern conflicts in which other nations have taken part. War is a complex environment, especially in a place like Yemen, so there will be errors."

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Rights groups have extensively documented the damage caused by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is battling against the impoverished country's Houthi rebels.

Riyadh maintains the Houthis are an Iranian proxy that pose a threat to regional security, but Tehran denies giving material support to the Yemeni rebels. 

The conflict, which started in 2015, has killed more than 100,000 people and brought the country to the verge of starvation. Over the past five years, coalition bombs have hit school children, markets, weddings and funerals.

On Wednesday, Prince Faisal said Riyadh is working to avoid civilian casualties. "We are striving and working very hard - and I think the numbers will show that there is significant effort by the coalition to minimise damage to civilian targets."

Sarah Leah Whitson: There is a deliberate and systematic pattern of targeting civilians

"You don't make hundreds and thousands of mistakes of bombing civilian areas," Whitson told MEE. 

"This is about a deliberate and systematic pattern of targeting civilian areas - not just schools, but hospitals, not just hospitals, but universities, not just universities but residences, not just residences but factories - that are deliberately designed to terrorise the Yemeni people."

Late in September, the UN group of Eminent and International Regional Experts on Yemen accused the Saudi-led coalition of conducting air strikes "in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, acts that may amount to war crimes".

Whitson said Saudi Arabia's defence against such "credible" accusations of war crimes is merely regurgitating "empty talking points" from PR experts.

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