And now we're joined by a Saudi government spokesperson
As my boss Mike was saying the other day, one of the mixed pleasures of working in the Amnesty media team is that you get to do TV and radio interviews (“And now we're joined by Amnesty spokesman Neil Durkin …”). Mixed, because they don't always go perfectly.
One of my worst – which I may have mentioned before, the scar's still healing – was suddenly feeling I had nothing to say live on Newsnight. In fact I think Kirsty Wark took pity on the nervous looking Amnesty person before her and left me out of the discussion after two of my thoroughly wooden answers.
Which …. was a pity, because it was 2001 and we were talking about how a group of Westerners (Brits, a Belgian and a Canadian I think it was) had appeared on national TV in Saudi Arabia confessing to taking part in a bombing and shooting campaign in the Kingdom. They said they'd been fighting for control of a bootleg liquor scheme in a country where alcohol is banned but often illicitly consumed by ex-pats. The case was big news. A British man had been killed in an attack and his family were understandably distraught. Meanwhile the semi-catatonic figures on Saudi television might face execution.
Except nothing was what it seemed. In fact the whole shadowy affair later got turned on its head. It became clear (to most people at least) that the TV confessional was total fakery, that the men had been tortured and terrified into taking the blame, and that the bombings were part of a terrorist insurgency with probable links to al-Qa'ida.
That was then, this is now, and eight years on even the notoriously tight-lipped Saudi authorities have long since acknowledged that they have a problem with terrorist opposition groups. The human rights problem, though, is the way that Saudi Arabia has dealt with suspected terrorists. As Amnesty details in a new report today, this has been with arbitrary detention, sleep deprivation, torture, the extraction of false confessions, unfair trials (no lawyers, no translators if you're a non-Arabic speaker) and long prison sentences or even execution.
In other words, you might say, it's been human rights business as usual in Saudi Arabia. With all sorts of people swept up – small-scale “suitcase” traders, university lecturers, lawyers, former Guantanamo detainees – Saudi jails and “re-education” centres are now bulging with a probable 3,000+ “security” detainees (I say probable, because the usual Saudi veil of secrecy has been thrown over all of this). Read Amnesty's Tim Hancock's new Comment is Free piece, especially on why it matters (or should matter) to the UK; and skip back to this other excellent CiF piece by William Sampson, writing last year and recalling … how he was one of those miserable men hauled before TV cameras back in 2001. (Also hear Tim Hancock – him again! – on the Today programme this morning: 7.12 interview. Happily, he didn’t sound wooden).
In a strange sub-Warholian way, we all seem to want to be on television these days (even Amnesty press officers!) but in Sampson's case his 15 minutes of fame came at the expense of more than two and half years' of torture and imprisonment. Shielded by its oil wealth and international clout (no SFO BAE fraud investigation for them remember), Saudi Arabia largely gets away with it – something that Twitterer Tom Stubbs, for one, isn't too impressed by. Tom – and you! – can take action here on behalf of one of those currently trapped in the country's opaque and deeply unfair Saudi justice.
All in all there's a lot for the Saudi government to answer for (its pretty meagre reaction today is here). Perhaps a Saudi government spokesman might like to go on Newsnight to answer some of the charges made in the Amnesty report. Then you might hear the words: And now we're joined by a Saudi government spokesperson …
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