THE CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS of Al Jazeera appears to have blocked an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record from viewers outside the United States. The news network, which is funded by the government of Qatar, told local press that it did not intend to offend Saudi Arabia or any other state ally, and would remove the piece.
The op-ed, written by Georgetown University professor and lawyer Arjun Sethi and titled, “Saudi Arabia Uses Terrorism as an Excuse for Human Rights Abuses,” ran on the website of Al Jazeera America, the network’s U.S. outlet. It comments on reports of 50 people recently sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activity and criticizes the U.S. government’s silence on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
The article ran on December 3, and is still available in the United States, but people attempting to view the link in other countries were given an error or “not found” page. (For international readers, we’ve reprinted the full text of the article here.)
When asked by The Intercept about the article, Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha said in a statement, “After hearing from users from different locations across the world that several of our web pages were unavailable, we have begun investigating what the source of the problem may be and we hope to have it resolved shortly.” …
… The criticisms of Saudi Arabia in Sethi’s piece are by no means unusual. He notes a steep rise in executions in Saudi Arabia this year, with Amnesty International reporting over 150 people killed, including adolescents; the sentencing of poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for “apostasy”; and allegations by international humanitarian groups that Saudi Arabian airstrikes in Yemen kill civilians indiscriminately. The reports Sethi cites have been widely covered in the media (including The Intercept.) Sethi, who has written several articles for Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera English, the network’s international franchise, told The Intercept that Al Jazeera America had solicited the op-ed from him.
A few days after publication, Sethi’s Twitter feed was flooded with attacks from pro-Saudi accounts. David Johnson, senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, retweeted many of the attacks. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
“The trolling seemed like an organized concerted effort to intimidate me,” Sethi said. “I will not submit to this act of censorship. Human rights are universal and I will continue to litigate and write about violations wherever they occur.”
Qatar is a monarchy tightly ruled by the emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The tiny, oil rich country has allied with Saudi Arabia against the government of Syria in that country’s civil war, and is part of Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, contributing to the devastating air war and deploying more than 1,000 ground troops this fall. Qatar is also part of the 34-nation Islamic alliance against terrorism that Saudi Arabia announced this week.
The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions about whether it had discussed the article with Al Jazeera or the Qatari government.
While Al Jazeera’s international coverage has been praised — particularly in the years after the 9/11 attacks — this is not the first time that the network has appeared to cater to the interests of Qatar and its Gulf allies. (Disclosure: prior to joining The Intercept, I wrote an article for Al Jazeera America as a freelancer.)
It has been criticized for lack of coverage of protests against the government of Bahrain, for example, and in 2012, several journalistscomplained that they had to edit coverage of Syria to feature the emir of Qatar’s position. In 2013, staffers in Egypt resigned in protest of the network’s bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood after the military deposed the president, Mohamed Morsi. (The Egyptian government subsequently jailed three Al Jazeera journalists for alleged collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood in a widely denounced trial. The last of the reporters werefreed in September.)…
Below is a copy of the missing Al Jazeera article, Saudi Arabia uses terrorism as an excuse for human rights abuses.
I stripped it of Al Jazeera’s .css tags, so hopefully it can be viewed worldwide. If you’re accessing it from outside the US, and can read it, post it on twitter with the hashtag #SueMeSaudi .
The kingdom is ramping up executions of Shias, with the tacit approval of the United States
Reports emerged last week that Saudi Arabia intends to imminently execute more than 50 people on a single day for alleged terrorist crimes.
Although the kingdom hasn’t officially confirmed the reports, the evidence is building. Okas, the first outlet to publish the report, has close ties to the Saudi Ministry of Interior and would not have published the story without obtaining government consent. Some of the prisoners slated for execution were likewise recently subject to an unscheduled medical exam, a sign that many believe portends imminent execution. There has already been a spike in capital punishment in Saudi Arabia this year, with at least 151 executions, compared with 90 for all of 2014.
The cases of six Shia activists from Awamiya, a largely Shia town in the oil-rich Eastern province, are particularly disconcerting. The majority of Saudi’s minority Shia population is concentrated in the Eastern province and has long faced government persecution. The six activists were convicted for protesting this mistreatment and other related crimes amid the Arab uprisings in 2011. Three of them were arrested when they were juveniles. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia religious leader who was convicted of similar charges, also faces imminent execution.
All the convictions were obtained through unfair trials marred by human and civil rights violations, including in some cases torture, forced confessions and lack of access to counsel. Each defendant was tried before the Specialized Criminal Court, a counterterrorism tribunal controlled by the Ministry of Interior that has few procedural safeguards and is often used to persecute political dissidents. Lawyers are generally prohibited from counseling their clients during interrogation and have limited participatory rights at trial. Prosecutors aren’t even required to disclose the charges and relevant evidence to defendants.
The problems aren’t just procedural. Saudi law criminalizes dissent and the expression of fundamental civil rights.Under an anti-terrorism law passed in 2014, for example, individuals may be executed for vague acts such as participating in or inciting protests, “contact or correspondence with any groups … or individuals hostile to the kingdom” or “calling for atheist thought.”
One of the defendants, Ali al-Nimr, was convicted of crimes such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations and gathering against the state and repeating some chants against the state.” For these offenses, he has been sentenced to beheading and crucifixion, with his beheaded body to be put on public display as a warning to others.
Because of these procedural and legal abominations, the planned executions for these Shia activists must not proceed. They should be retried in public proceedings and afforded due process protections consistent with international law, which includes a ban on the death penalty for anyone under the age of 18.
No other executions should take place in Saudi Arabia. Capital punishment is morally repugnant and rife with error and bias, as we know all too well in the United States. Moreover, any outcome produced by the Saudi criminal justice system is inherently suspect. Inadequate due process, violations of basic human rights and draconian laws that criminalize petty offenses and exercising of civil rights are fixtures of Saudi rule.
[Pull Quote: “Saudi Arabia often escapes moral condemnation in large part because of its close relationship with the US.]
They’re also fixtures of authoritarian regimes in general. Those who simply expect Saudi Arabia to reform its criminal justice system ignore the fact that the kingdom is an authoritarian regime that uses the law as a tool to maintain and consolidate power. They also ignore the reality that Saudi Arabia often escapes moral condemnation in large part because of its close relationship with the U.S.
In 2014, for example, President Barack Obama visited the kingdom but made no mention of its ongoing human rights violations. In return, he and the first family received $1.4 million in gifts from the Saudi king. (By law U.S. presidents must either pay for such gifts or turn them over to the National Archives.) The two leaders discussed energy security and military intelligence, shared interests that have connected the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for nearly a century.
Obama traveled to the kingdom earlier this year to offer his condolences on the passing of King Abdullah and to meet with the new ruler, King Salman. Again, human rights were never mentioned. Instead, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted that Abdullah was a “close and valued friend of the United States.”
This deafening silence is not lost on Saudi Arabia and has emboldened its impunity. In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the kingdom’s brutal campaign against its Shia minority and political opposition has deepened. Shiashave limited access to government employment and public education, few rights under the criminal justice system and diminished religious rights. Those who protest this discrimination face arbitrary trial and the prospect of execution for terrorism. Consider that Saudi Arabia has not carried out a mass execution for terrorism-related offenses since 1980, a year after an armed group occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
Dissent of any kind is quelled. In November, Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet and artist born in Saudi Arabia, wassentenced to death for allegedly renouncing Islam. His supporters allege that he’s being punished for posting a video of police lashing a man in public.
Even the kingdom’s neighbors aren’t immune from its authoritarian agenda. Numerous reports suggest that the Saudi-led coalition against opposition groups in Yemen has indiscriminately attacked civilians and used cluster bombs in civilian-populated areas, in violation of international law.
Despite its appalling human rights record, Saudi Arabia was awarded a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council last year and this summer was selected to oversee an influential committee within the council that appoints officials to report on country-specific and thematic human rights challenges. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has used its newfound power to thwart an international inquiry into allegations that it committed war crimes in Yemen.
It’s not by happenstance that the kingdom announced the mass execution just days after 130 people were killed in Paris in the worst terrorist attacks in Europe in more than a decade. Even before Paris, the U.S. used its “war on terrorism” to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, engage in mass surveillance and develop an assassination program immune from judicial oversight. Is it any surprise that Saudi Arabia feels emboldened to intensify its own “war on terrorism”?
Arjun Sethi is a writer and lawyer in Washington, D.C. He is also an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.