- Sarah Leah Whitsonexecutive director of the human rights organization Democracy for the Arab World Now.
The U.S. is refusing to directly condemn Saudi Arabia after the kingdom announced on Saturday it executed 81 people, including seven Yemeni men and one Syrian man. Rights groups say many of those executed were people arrested for participating in human rights demonstrations and that many of the defendants were denied access to a lawyer, held incommunicado and tortured. This comes as the U.S. is said to be in talks with Saudi officials about upping the kingdom’s oil supply to ease gas prices in the West. “It’s very clear that the Saudi government thought that they could take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to quietly carry out this execution,” says Sarah Leah Whitson of Democracy for the Arab World Now. Whitson says President Biden’s continued attempts to negotiate with Saudi Arabia while condemning the human rights abuses perpetrated by Russia are “pathetic,” undermining international law and U.S. credibility on human rights. She also says the Saudi government is trying to pressure the U.S. to scrap a lawsuit she is leading on the state-sanctioned murder of the Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in exchange for increasing oil production.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show looking at Saudi Arabia. Over the weekend, the kingdom carried out the largest mass execution in its modern history, putting 81 men to death within a span of 24 hours. The official Saudi Press Agency said in a statement the men were guilty of crimes ranging from terrorism to so-called deviant beliefs. Among those executed, people arrested for participating in human rights demonstrations. Rights groups say many of the defendants were denied access to a lawyer, held incommunicado and tortured. While human rights groups have condemned the executions, the — Biden’s response has been more muted. On Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked about the U.S. response.
REPORTER: Does the United States also condemn the executions?
NED PRICE: Well, we’ve these reports that Saudi Arabia executed 81 people on March 12th. We continue to raise with Saudi Arabia the need to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, the rule of law, and freedom of religion and belief.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to push the world’s top oil exporter for increased output, as he called on the West to end its addiction to Russian fuel. Axios recently reported U.S. officials have been holding talks with Saudi officials about a possible visit by President Biden to discuss global oil supply and, quote, “help repair relations.”
For more, we’re joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN, a group founded by Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018. In fact, she’s involved in a lawsuit representing his fiancée for that murder.
Sarah Leah Whitson, can you talk about what happened this weekend, and then the Biden administration courting Mohammed bin Salman?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s very clear that the Saudi government thought that they could take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to quietly carry out this execution of 81 people in the country, not worried really that there would be a serious international reaction, both because of the Ukraine crisis but also because of the fact that Western governments, including the United States and the United Kingdom, are basically pleading with Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production. So, really, it was a way for Mohammed bin Salman to demonstrate that he can do whatever he wants, including engaging in this shocking act of bloodletting against 81 people in Saudi Arabia in a single day.
AMY GOODMAN: And who they are, those men that were killed?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, we have some limited information. We know that seven of the men were Yemenis, believed to be prisoners of war. There was one Syrian national among them. The remainder appear to be Saudi citizens, 41 of whom we believe to be from the Shia minority community in the country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sarah Leah Whitson, can you talk about the White House’s response to this mass execution, the largest in Saudi modern history, and how that fits into both the Biden administration, the British prime minister going to Saudi Arabia, possibly Biden, to repair relations?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, it’s pathetic. And it’s for all the world to see at a time when President Biden is trying to rally support among the international community for international laws, international norms, human rights. All of the principles that he has invoked in Ukraine, he’s choosing not to invoke in Saudi Arabia. And the executions of 81 men is among them. When Iran executed an Iranian wrestler unjustly, unfairly, the U.S. not only condemned it repeatedly, but sanctioned the Iranian judges involved in that case. The contrast to Saudi Arabia could not be starker. And while it’s clear that the United States thinks it can try to woo Mohammed bin Salman to increase oil production, the damage that’s being done to America’s credibility, the damage being done to the very international laws and norms that the United States is now clinging to to rally support, is tremendous. And it’s really the persistent failure of the Biden administration and administrations before it to see the global costs that we are paying to paper over, look the other way, when are so-called partners in the Middle East carry out atrocities of their own.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go — and we’re going to do a Part 2 with you, Sarah, and we’re going to put it online at democracynow.org — if you can talk about the lawsuit you’re involved with and what it means to Mohammed bin Salman?
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, our lawsuit is a lawsuit that my organization, DAWN, is bringing together with Hatice Cengiz here in U.S. district court for the murder of Mohammed bin Salman, the damage he’s caused Hatice in doing that, as well as the damage to our organization.
AMY GOODMAN: The murder of Khashoggi.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Yes. Mohammed bin Salman has tried to dismiss the complaint, but now he continues to seek that President Biden exempt him under the principles of sovereign immunity, even though the Biden administration has said repeatedly that he is not head of state, and therefore, under U.S. laws, wouldn’t be entitled to sovereign immunity. Mohammed bin Salman is now demanding that the U.S. intervene in the American judiciary to block our lawsuit and two other lawsuits against —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
SARAH LEAH WHITSON: — Mohammed bin Salman, in exchange for increasing oil production. It’s a shocking effort to intervene in our judicial system.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk more about this. People, check it out at democracynow.org. Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.