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”.
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.”
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
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.
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.”
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.