“The Machine Never Stopped” Saudi efforts to suppress free debate and punish dissenters still ongoing

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Three activists, friends and colleagues of the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, were warned by the CIA that they and their families are at potential risk of Saudi retaliation, for continuing Jamal’s work in the field of pro-democracy. These are: Saudi national Omar Abdulaziz who holds permanent residence in Canada since 2014, founder of The Arab Tyrant Manual Iyad El-Baghdadi, a Palestinian human rights activist who sought political asylum in Norway also in 2014, — after being expelled from UAE, for tweeting over his late friend Bassem Masry, who was killed during the Egyptian revolution —, and a third person who was notified while in the U.S. They asked to remain anonymous.

Iyad El-Baghdadi broke the news in a tweet stating:

Something crazy – concerning my personal safety – happened two weeks ago which I                haven’t been at liberty to speak about, but is breaking today. The last two weeks have been very stressful, but I hope I’ve managed well given the pressure.

two days later TIMES magazine published a full investigative report on the subject.

According to the report, the nature of the threat was not specified but, Baghdadi said “he was instructed to take a wide range of precautions, including preventive measures to make it harder to hack their electronic devices in order to leak and weaponise the information against them”. This tactic was also used against Omar Abdulaziz, who is now suing the Israeli software company NSO for helping the Saudi government to do so, by selling them the software. This was reported by Citizenlab, a human rights and media watchdog based at the University of Toronto focusing on digital espionage.

It is also worth noting that NSO is facing a wave of backlash on social media, after Finance Times broke a story on a security vulnerability within the WhatsApp application. The app which is used by 1.5 billion people was injected by Israeli military grade spyware, through a simple call even if it was unanswered. That means phones could be hacked by just having the person’s phone number. One of those affected was Joe Noonan, a human rights lawyer from the UK.

On the 30/03/2019 Gavin De Becker, a security specialist primarily for governments, corporations and public figures published an opinion article with the Daily Beast. He stated that his client Jeff Bezos —the CEO of Amazon and owner of Washington Post (where Khashoggi was a columnist)— has been hacked by the Saudis. He says:

Our investigators and several experts concluded with high confidence that the Saudis had access to Bezos’ phone, and gained private information”.

Iyad El-Baghdadi worked closely with De Becker on this project, says the article and confirmed the former during a press conference held in Norway on 13/05/2019. He said: “Immediately after seeing the Medium post [written by Bezos], my team started investigating the matter. I wrote some preliminary thoughts on Twitter soon after, and a couple days later I was contacted by Gavin de Becker, who is the head of Jeff Bezos’s investigation team, and we established a working relationship”. He also noted that “in late February, I wrote a detailed report for the Daily Beast – that revealed the extent of the Saudi campaign against Jeff Bezos”.

Omar Abdulaziz who arrived to Canada as a student at McGill in ’09, worked closely with Khashoggi. According to an interview with Euronews, they knew each other for years and were working on multiple projects that were aimed at “raising people’s awareness towards their human and political rights”. One of these projects was to establish an online “army” under the name of  “Cyber Bees” to counter the Saudi pro-government troll “army”. They were also working on a short film that takes on the topics of human rights and democracy.

A couple of months before Khashoggi’s murder, Abdulaziz took to a live feed on twitter to break the news on the 150 officers who stormed multiple homes of his wider family, and arrested two of his siblings in the Kingdom. He also noted that he met multiple personnels who came from Saudi to meet him, offer him money, and sway him into “coming back home”. They threatened him by bringing his younger brother with them to Canada. Omar says he recorded the conversations with the officials as they said to him: “The orders to contact activists and dissenters comes from the crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself”. He confirmed “that the machine is still working, that machine never stopped” of the Saudi efforts to suppress free debate and punish dissenters.

The warning received by Iyad Baghdadi came on April 25, when agents from the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) came to his home and took him to a secure location for a two-hour brief as reported by the Guardian. This came at around the same time as Canadian authorities notified Abdulaziz of his situation and the third anonymous person in the US. During the briefing the three advocates were told they shouldn’t travel and that they should notify their families immediately, according to Baghdadi. The list of countries would include “Tunisia, Greece, Cyprus and several other countries because there is chatter with your name on it, from the Saudis”, said a US security official to the US located activist.

TIMES reports that the Canadian officials in Washington declined to comment, whereas in Norway Annett Aamodt, senior advisor to the Norwegian Police Security Service, said, “The PST is not in a position to comment on contact we have with individuals or assessments we do around the security of individuals”. The involvement of the PST indicates that Norway is taking the matter seriously. Threats to individuals are usually taken up by the local police, while “PST handles those rare cases in which people granted political asylum, like Baghdadi, are threatened by a foreign government with hostile intent, according to a source familiar with its operations”.

Skyline continues monitoring these serious and disturbing escalations. It also considers these reports to be vile attacks on freedom of speech and expression. More so, Skyline calls on the UN to take into account the current state of the world being lead by strongmen and to introduce the necessary special protections for journalists and whistleblowers. Until such progress, currently Article 17(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), stipulates that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation”. According to Article 17(2) ICCPR “Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”, and Article 19(2): “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

Skyline calls on Saudi Arabia to halt its’ operations of silencing dissenters, and to bring the culprits in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to justice.

By Rawand Safi, Researcher at SkyLine International

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