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‘Weak’ US let Saudis jail more dissidents, says rights group | Global development

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The Biden administration’s failure to impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has led to a increase in severe sentences for political prisoners in the kingdom, the Guardian can reveal.

The UK-based human rights organisation Grant Liberty found that twice as many harsh sentences had been meted out to Saudi prisoners of conscience in April than in the first three months of this year combined. It followed the Biden administration’s decision on 26 February to publish an intelligence report that showed the crown prince, “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi”.

A vigil outside the Saudi embassy in Washington for the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A vigil outside the Saudi embassy in Washington for the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. More dissidents were jailed after the US failed to act, said Grant Liberty. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

In the weeks since the US decision, Grant Liberty said it had seen a renewed crackdown on political prisoners and claimed there was a direct link to the American failure to impose sanctions on the crown prince or his close circle of advisers. It said the decision had given the Saudi authorities carte blanche to mete out severe punishments to critics.

“News from the Saudi legal system can be notoriously slow, but at least eight individuals suffered stiff sentences in April alone – twice as many as the first three months of the year combined,” it said. There were no prisoners of conscience sentenced in either April 2019 or April last year.

In late February, the Biden administration announced the “Khashoggi ban”, by denying visas to 76 Saudis “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing”. But critics said these measures, which stopped short of imposing sanctions on the crown prince or those close to him, had done little to discourage the Saudi authorities from targeting critics.

Lucy Rae, of Grant Liberty, said: “The international community must demonstrate that the only way the kingdom can improve its standing is through genuine reform. That means we need the tough action [presidential] candidate Biden talked about, not the weakness President Biden has so far shown.”

Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, an aid worker who was one of the eight men sentenced in April, received a 20-year jail term and an additional 20-year travel ban for running a parody social media account. Abdulaziz Alaoudh al-Odah, who was arrested last September for his social media activity, was sentenced to five years in prison.

His nephew Abdullah Alaoudh, son of the imprisoned cleric Salman al-Odah, as well as a pro-democracy activist at the Washington thinktank Democracy for the Arab World Now, said that the administration’s choice to publish the report aided accountability but little else. “It absolutely helped transparency, and helped us to know where responsibility lay, but accountability was completely lacking, and that’s what was at stake from the very beginning,” he said.

“The Biden administration knew this,” Alaoudh added. “But they manoeuvred, they wanted something light like the ‘Khashoggi ban’, and they made the symbolic gesture of talking not to the crown prince but instead to the king. What the prince took from all this is that everything [that Biden said] during the [presidential] campaign was just campaign talk, and therefore they won’t act on it.”

There are 22 prisoners of conscience who were sentenced for comments related to the kingdom’s former blockade of Qatar. Saudi Arabia’s relations with the tiny Gulf state have been warming. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, flew to Jeddah on Monday evening to meet the crown prince, shortly after the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, visited Qatar.

A spokesperson for the US Department of State said: “The United States’ commitment to democratic values and human rights is a priority, especially with our partners. We continue to elevate respect for human rights in our bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. As we have repeatedly made clear, peaceful activism to promote human rights is not a crime.”

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington did not respond when contacted for comment.

Alaoudh said that while the crown prince may be willing to shift on matters of foreign policy, he viewed control over free speech as a direct threat.

“You can normalise with everyone – Qatar, Turkey, Iran – but not your own people because that means sharing decision-making, which for them is so dangerous,” he said. “Agreeing to some kind of political participation or power-sharing is an end to the absolute monarchy, which is all they know.”



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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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‘Freudian Slip’: Biden Confuses Trump With Obama in New Gaffe

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The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.

US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.

“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”

Apparently, Biden briefly messed up the timeline, confusing his predecessor, Trump, with the 44th US president, Obama. Even his quick apology did not prevent social media users from picking up on his gaffe.

​Some suggested that since a Freudian slip occurs as an action inspired by an internal train of thought or unconscious wish, it was Biden “dreaming” about working with Trump rather than Obama.

​Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.

​Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components. 

Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.



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Countdown to the airstrike: the moment Israeli forces hit al-Jalaa tower, Gaza | Global development

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Countdown to destruction

During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.

Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?

In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021.
Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.

The story of al-Jalaa tower

The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.

Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi

Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.

Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.

After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.

The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.


Timeline



The aftermath

As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.

Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi

Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”

Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?

“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”

Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:

“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”

Main photo: NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock, Guardian composite; Satellite images ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images, Google Earth

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