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Human Rights Watch launches campaign to counter Riyadh's bids to whitewash rights abuses

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Demonstrators dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) and US President Donald Trump (R) protest outside the White House in Washington, DC, on October 19, 2018. (Photo by AFP)

Human Rights Watch has censured Saudi Arabia as a "pervasive human rights violator," saying it has launched a new campaign to counter Riyadh's attempts to whitewash its rights abuses.

In a statement on Friday, the New York-based rights group said the kingdom has spent billions of dollars to deflect attention from its "dismal" rights record.

"The Saudi government had spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country's image as a pervasive human rights violator," the statement said.

The rights group added that it would seek to counter Riyadh's efforts "to whitewash abuses through an outreach campaign to inform the entertainment and sports industries about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including top celebrities, performers, and sports figures."

"The campaign will also seek out organizers and participants in major international events sponsored by the Saudi government, calling on them to speak out publicly on rights issues or, when laundering is the primary purpose, not to participate," it said.

The campaign coincided with the second anniversary of the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi hit squad at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

The gruesome killing of Khashoggi in October 2018 sparked international outrage and tarnished the image of Saudi Arabia's de facto leader ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

However, the brutal killing brought no accountability for top-level Saudi officials implicated in the murder and increasing reports of human rights abuses draw attentions.

Since Khashoggi's murder, bin Salman has aggressively organized and bankrolled high-profile events featuring major international artists, celebrities, and sports figures, with plans for many more.

Saudi Arabia also currently holds the presidency of the G20, a forum for international economic cooperation, and will host the G20 leaders’ summit in late November.

 "Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

 “So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government’s atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom’s strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s abuses," Page said.

The rights group said such events can serve to "counteract negative scrutiny" of the Saudi government’s human rights violations, including the Khashoggi murder, and "undermine efforts to hold Saudi officials accountable."

The image-enhancing efforts are part of bin Salman’s 2030 vision to transform the image of the kingdom into a more modern representation and to diversify its oil-based economy.

At the same time, however, Riyadh has continued to pursue its destructive war in Yemen and human rights defenders continue to languish in Saudi jails.

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