Obama visits a Saudi Arabia ‘in transition’?

Saudi ArabiaU.S. President Barack Obama sought to cement ties with Saudi Arabia as he came to pay his respects on Tuesday after the death of King Abdullah, a trip that underscores the importance of a U.S.-Saudi alliance that extends beyond oil interests to regional security, Reuters reports:

U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia over its human rights record has normally been low-key and may remain so. Obama said in an interview with CNN that the United States had to balance its pressure on Saudi Arabia and other allies over human rights with its immediate concerns about terrorism and regional stability.

“With all the other countries we work with, what I have found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” he said.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia, arrived at a meeting of security chiefs from across the Arab world in Marrakesh, Morocco, last March to deliver a call to arms, The New York Times reports: It was time, he declared, for a concerted effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Arab officials:

Several were stunned at his audacity. Brotherhood-style Islamists are an accepted part of politics in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco itself, to say nothing of their warm welcome in Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the powerful Saudi prince.

“He is the strongest prince,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University who studies Saudi Arabia. “He is the most powerful guy in the system. He is the pivot,” he told The Times:

Many took his appointment [as the new deputy crown prince] as an attempt to underscore the dynasty’s stability, laying out its rulers for decades to come…. Unlike King Abdullah or King Salman, who studied at the court, Prince Mohammed was educated in the West and graduated from Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Ore…..Because of his Western education, Prince Mohammed is believed to favor liberalization on matters like education and opportunities for women. But he has made few public statements on social issues, and experts say his security mind-set makes him unlikely to push for changes that might endanger his family’s legitimacy as the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative version of Islam.

saudi wahhabiSaudi Arabia remains the major source of Wahhabi ideology, which spreads outward to radicalize foreign Muslims, analysts Carol E.B. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy write for World Politics Review:

The attacks in Paris earlier this month serve as a tragic example of Wahhabism’s influence. The Charlie Hebdo attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, were radicalized in France by Wahhabi tenet-holding al-Qaida operatives and preachers ….
The Saudi export of Wahhabism and jihad began in earnest in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. … it allocated $4 billion each year for the next three decades to build approximately 1,500 mosques and 2,000 madrasas (or religious schools), employ 4,000 preachers, enlist thousands of students andprint millions of textbooks to globalize the Wahhabi creed. Wahhabi institutions sprung up in Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, in Afghanistan itself and across Central Asia and the Balkans.

The Saudi-funded Wahhabi expansion included North America and Europe, too. A charitable foundation established by the late King Fahd provides some of the funding for foreign mosques and other Islamic institutions, and is also a major funding source for Wahhabi publications, as the foundation’s website boasts. Disseminated widely, these publications spread an “ideology of hatred that can incite violence,” according to Freedom House.

But over the last decade, the country’s rulers have sought to moderate the sermons of some of the kingdom’s most radical clergy. More modern-thinking clerics have been promoted to senior state positions and some scholars from other branches of Sunni Islam brought onto the top clerical council, reports suggest.

“The Wahhabis do not have the same grip over power in Saudi Arabia as they used to over the past centuries,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a Cairo-based political analyst. “The power of politics has overtaken the influence of religion on governing the kingdom, and King Abdullah should be the one taking the credit.”

The more that King Abdullah’s health declined, the higher the number of people being threatened and imprisoned by the Ministry of Interior grew, a Saudi observer writes for Politico:

raif-badawi-cropped-internalInitially, the threats, while harsh and unwarranted, were against activists who were truly outspoken in their demands for political rights and freedoms. In 2012, for instance, Mohammed Al Bajadi was tried and sentenced in a secret court on charges of disobedience of the rulers, speaking to foreign media, demonstrating and owning prohibited books on democracy. In 2013, Mohammed Al Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison for documenting political prisoners and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Mikhlif Al Shammari was sentenced in the same year, for promoting anti-sectarianism. Raif Badawi (left) established a web forum called The Saudi Liberal Network that facilitated the discussion and criticism of the radical Islam taught in Saudi schools. In return, he was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. His lawyer, Abulkhair, was sentenced to 15 years for establishing an independent human rights organization. The list goes on and on.

Under Abdullah, the kingdom’s regional dominance has receded, says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress.But the diminished clout he leaves to his successors is not entirely a consequence of the late king’s actions, he writes for The Atlantic:

The Middle East as a whole is fragmenting as more countries and non-state groups like ISIS compete for power. In addition, technological and demographic changes, such as the rise of a new generation in the Middle East’s current youth bulge (15- to 29-year-olds constituted about one-third of the region’s population as of 2008), have limited the ability of traditional institutions to enforce conformity or influence events. These dynamics are not unique to Saudi Arabia, but they are perhaps nowhere more clear than in the kingdom, which has the highest number of active Twitter users in the Arab world, and where a liberal blogger was recently sentenced to a prison term and 1,000 lashes for criticizing the authorities.

islamists nytHuman rights activists might be ready to turn the page on tributes to Saudi Arabia’s deceased leader. But the U.S.’s top military officer said he’d like to see a few hundred pages more, in the form of an essay contest honoring King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz and his close security ties to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports:

Human rights activists and others have pointed to some of the more unsavory aspects of his rule, including limiting free expression, a harsh justice system where beheadings are a common punishment and serious limits on women’s rights. In the last weeks of King Abdullah’s reign, a Saudi blogger began undergoing a sentence of 1,000 lashes for writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia’s clerics on a liberal blog.

The Saudi regime is eager to stress continuity and stability to both its allies and its citizens, say analysts

“They have told the people of Saudi Arabia that everything is going to be stable for the next 30 years, so don’t worry about the transition,” said James B. Smith, a former United States ambassador to Riyadh. “And it is a strategic message to everyone else who wants to try to second-guess the whole transition idea.”

“None of these people are ideological,” Professor Haykel said. “There is no commitment to anything beyond their interests.”

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray Prince Mohammed as personally motivated to fight militant Islam and in tight cooperation with the United States.

But Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said that while law enforcement under Prince Mohammed’s father had often been arbitrary, Prince Mohammed had professionalized and formalized it, The Times adds.

“He is the architect of the crackdown on and jailing of these activists with ludicrously harsh sentences,” said. “This is all on his watch.”

Neil MacFarquhar, with The Times’s reporters Helene Cooper and Rod Nordland, wrote a news analysis about Saudi Arabian-American relations in the wake of King Abdullah’s death. MacFarquhar provides a short list of books or articles for those who’d like a larger context for understanding the situation, history and consequences:

“Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change.” A brand-new primer on the many facets of Saudi Arabia from religion to oil to women’s rights, with individual essays by some of the best academics in the field.

“Awakening Islam,” by Stephen Lacroix, who helped edit the primer above, examines the Islamic revival movement within Saudi Arabia that gave birth to the global jihadists…





Kerry denounces crackdowns on dissent

Authoritarian crackdowns on dissent damage the “long-term stability, security, and economic development” of the countries involved, according to the U.S. State Department’s newly-released 2013 Country Report on Human Rights.

The annual country-by-country index was released as the world marks the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but sixty years on “’more than one third of the world’s population still lives under authoritarian rule,” the report notes.

In his remarks launching the report today, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, denounced the suppression of dissent and singled out Syria for the regime’s egregious rights violations. He blasted North Korea over its human rights abuses, describing it as “an evil, evil place”.

Kerry paid tribute to the democracy advocates and rights activists struggling to expand political space and defend individual liberties.

“The truth is that some of the greatest accomplishments in expanding the cause of human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but they came through the awesomely courageous acts of individuals,” he said, “whether it is Xu Zhiyong fighting for the government transparency that he desires to see in China, or Ales Byalyatski, who is demanding justice and transparency and accountability in Belarus, whether it is Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga (above), who is rapping for greater political freedom in Cuba, or Eskinder Nega, who is writing for freedom of expression in Ethiopia.”

“Every single one of these people are demonstrating a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever,” said Kerry.

He said he was also “inspired” by the 86-year-old Russian human rights pioneer Lyudmila Alekseyeva, a recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2004 Democracy Award, who has “spent a lifetime fighting for the basic rights that we take for granted here in the United States.”

The report notes that “transitioning democracies dealt with predictable setbacks in their quest for political change, and new democracies struggled to deliver effective governance and uphold rule of law.”

“Counteracting impunity for security forces will require these countries to invest in independent and effective judiciaries, civilian-controlled and responsible security forces, and transparent and accountable democratic government institutions,” it adds.

“The places where we face some of the greatest national security challenges today are also places where governments deny basic human rights to their nations’ people, and that is no coincidence,” said Kerry. “And it is particularly no coincidence in an age where people have access and want access to more information and the freedom to be able to act – to access information and to be able to act on the basis of that information. That is what has always characterized democracies and free people.”

Vietnamese court rejects dissident’s appeal

Credit: RFA

Credit: VOA

One of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents lost his appeal on Tuesday against imprisonment for tax evasion, as dozens of supporters protested outside the court against the communist state’s crackdown on dissent, according to reports:

Scores of police encircled the Hanoi People’s Court of Appeals, which upheld a two and a half year jail sentence for Catholic lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan, whose conviction in October was denounced by rights campaigners as politically motivated.

“The defendant did not show regret and took a disrespectful attitude towards the court,” said court president Nguyen Van Son, confirming the jail term and a fine of around US$57,000. The television feed to the court’s observation room was cut off immediately after the verdict. The lawyer earlier told the court he was “completely innocent,” of the charges against him.

“I am the victim of a political conspiracy. I object to this trial,” said Quan.

Quan’s lawyer Bui Quang Nghiem told the court that the tax evasion charges were a joke.

“If you want to try Le Quoc Quan for his activism, you don’t need to bring him to court for tax evasion,” he said.

The US Embassy in Hanoi has described Le Quoc Quan’s conviction as part of a “disturbing” trend of Vietnam’s communist authorities using tax laws to imprison people for peacefully expressing political views.

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Human rights groups this week decried the regime’s broader crackdown on rights activists and dissidents.

“This looks like a shameful and personalized act of retaliation against human rights defenders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Donors and other international actors who want to see reforms in Vietnam should publicly call for an immediate end to such blatantly abusive security force behavior.”

According to interviews and materials posted on nongovernment online sites by Nguyen Bac Truyen and others at the scene, Human Rights Watch notes:

…..on February 9, 2014, police and plainclothes security officers surrounded their house in Dong Thap province, and, after his Internet connection was cut, entered the premises, ransacked part of the house, and took him away for questioning. His fiancé said she was also detained for several hours. In an interview with Voice of America, Nguyen Bac Truyen described being blindfolded, handcuffed, and transported on the afternoon of February 9 to a police station where he was interrogated about supposed financial irregularities at a company he once owned, before being released on the morning of February 10 and sent to his fiancée’s parents’ home in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

China faults UN report on North Korea’s atrocities, rights abuses


Chinese officials on Tuesday criticized a United Nations report that served notice to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that he might be personally held liable in court for crimes against humanity committed by state institutions and officials under his direct control, the New York Times reports:

Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, called the report “unreasonable criticism,” raising questions as to whether Beijing will use its United Nations Security Council veto power to block any action on the matter.

“We believe that politicizing human rights issues is not conducive toward improving a country’s human rights,” Ms. Hua said. “We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country’s human rights situation.”

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea called on the commission to identify “alleged individual perpetrators” and seek a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based NGO, said in a statement that China would face increasing consequences for protecting North Korea.

“The price of unconditionally supporting a regime that has committed crimes against humanity is going to be higher,” he wrote.

Shin Dong-hyuk (above), the only prisoner known to have escaped from the North Korean gulag, has told The Telegraph that Pyongyang will simply ignore the UN findings.

“Unfortunately, the UN cannot do very much,” said 33-year-old Shin, whose remarkable escape to South Korea was detailed in “Escape From Camp 14.” nkgulag-300x202

“The horrible state that is North Korea does not take the UN seriously and history shows us that the organisation has not been able to do one thing to halt the problem in North Korea,” he added.


“For the first time, a United Nations body has recognized that the government of North Korea is committing crimes against humanity and that its leaders should be brought to account,” said Roberta Cohen, joint chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“It is now up to the world community to take action to protect those persecuted and bring the perpetrators to justice,” she told RFA. “The report is clear recognition that the Kim [Jong-un] regime’s systematic murder, abduction, torture, starvation, religious persecution and political imprisonment of its people must be brought to a halt.”

Far-right regime?

“The world is finally waking up to the fact that North Korea is a far-right state, in that the regime derives its right to rule from a commitment to military might and racial purity,” said Brian Myers, a South Korea-based North Korea expert.

“But for that very reason, the regime has never felt very embarrassed by criticism of its human rights record, and has reported sneeringly on that criticism to its own people. Perhaps it will realize that it cannot keep attracting investors and collaborators without making more of a pretence to progressive or leftist tendencies.”

North Korea’s leaders should be tried by an international court on charges of crimes against humanity, a United Nations commission reported on Monday, accusing the totalitarian regime of systematically eliminating, starving and enslaving its people.

“On one occasion, [a witness] was forced to bring a pile of bodies up the mountain and saw that rats had already gnawed of the flesh from their faces,” the report reads. “The witness estimates that at least 800 prisoners died every year from malnourishment, infectious diseases, and accidents at work.”

“We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” said Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge and head of the panel, before the UN Human Rights Council. “Women and men who exercised their human right to leave the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and were forcibly repatriated spoke about their experiences of torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention. Family members of persons abducted from the Republic of Korea and Japan described the agony they endured ever since the enforced disappearance of their loved ones at the hands of agents of the DPRK.”

Experts say the commission adds new weight to previously documented reports of the regime’s human rights abuses.

“They’re ground-breaking in that it’s the first time that the United Nations as an institution has found that crimes against humanity are being committed against the people of North Korea,” said Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. “But of course it’s also unremarkable in the sense that those of us who have worked on North Korea human rights for many, many years are aware of the sheer weight of evidence coming out of North Korea over decades now … And so the real question now is, what next?” he said in an interview with BBC News

The 36-page summary report and 372-page annex detail a wide range of crimes against humanity and criticizes the regime’s political and security apparatus. The North Korean state employs surveillance, fear, public executions and forced disappearances “to terrorize the population into submission,” it adds.

“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials,” the report asserts, although it stopped short of alleging genocide.

An unprecedented report based on a year-long investigation found violations of a scale and nature without “any parallel in the contemporary world”, recommending that the UN Security Council refer the country to the International Criminal Court or set up a special tribunal.

“Systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials,” said the report by the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, set up in March 2013 by the UN Human Rights Council.

“In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded,” the report said.  ”The gravity, scale and nature of these violations revealed a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

“For the first time, the magnitude of what’s going on inside North Korea is coming to light,” says Lilian Lee, an officer for the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights:

Ms. Lee, who testified before the U.N. commission last year, said the report, by laying out details on labor camps, torture and inhuman treatment, will force the world to confront the issue.