Saudi Prince authorised campaign against dissenters

New York: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorised a secret campaign to silence dissenters, which included the surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture, over a year before the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to US officials.

At least some of the clandestine missions were carried out by members of the same team that killed and dismembered Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, in Istanbul last October, suggesting that his killing was a particularly egregious part of a wider campaign to silence Saudi dissidents, The New York Times reported on Sunday citing the officials as saying.

Details about the operations come from the American officials who have read classified intelligence assessments about the Saudi campaign, as well as from Saudis with direct knowledge of some of the operations.

Members of the team, known as the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, that killed Khashoggi were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017, the officials said.

The Group was authorised by Prince Mohammed and was overseen by Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide whose official job was media czar at the royal court. His deputy, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, an intelligence officer who has travelled abroad with the crown prince, led the team in the field.

Another operative on the team was Thaar Ghaleb al-Harbi, a member of the royal guard who was promoted in 2017 for valour during an attack on a palace of Prince Mohammed’s.

Some of the operations involved forcibly repatriating Saudis from other Arab countries and detaining and abusing prisoners in palaces belonging to the Crown Prince and his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

According to American intelligence reports, one of the detained was a university lecturer in linguistics who wrote a blog about women in Saudi Arabia. She tried to kill herself last year after being subjected to psychological torture.

In response to the report, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington told The New York Times that the Kingdom “takes any allegations of ill-treatment of defendants awaiting trial or prisoners serving their sentences very seriously”.

Saudi laws prohibit torture and hold accountable those involved in such abuses of power, the spokesman said, adding that judges cannot accept confessions obtained under duress.

The Kingdom’s public prosecutor and the Saudi Human Rights Commission are investigating “recent allegations”, he added.

The Saudi government has insisted that Khashoggi’s killing was not an assassination ordered from Riyadh.

The decision to kill him was made by the team on the spot, government officials say, and those responsible are being prosecuted.

The Kingdom has said that 11 Saudis are facing criminal charges for the killing and that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of them, but officials have not publicly identified the accused.