Interviewed by Sarhan Basem, (Newswire Now) -Brussels – Freedom of Expression in the Middle East Always come with a price. If you try to speak freely or you criticize your government you might end up in prison, tortured and in worst case scenario given a court order to refrain from future activity. Following the Arab spring, those working in the Media field, citizen journalism, or even political activists are facing severe hardships expressing their free views. We saw grim experiences of people in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and GCC countries in addition to North Africa who either lost their life while in duty or experienced. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi was one sole example that came to public where the world witnessed his murder. But, in actual real terms, there are thousands of Khashoggi you never heard of!
In this regard, I will be carrying a series of articles discussing free speech in the Middle East with special focus on how Europe could help. I would raise questions with politicians, members of the European Parliament and the most seniors across the European Union.
In this article, I interview Member of the European Parliament Thierry Mariani. He was Secretary of State for Transport for the Minister of Ecology, Sustainable development, Transport and Housing in the François Fillon III government, and a member of The Republicans, until joining the National Rally’s list for the European election in January 2019.
In answer to our first question about violations against Journalists in Saudi Arabia and possible steps to help those victims, Mr. Mariani explained that the European Union diplomatic relations with countries is based on analysis of the human rights situation, and therefore of press freedom, in the country concerned. In the new action plan on the defence of human rights, which has yet to be voted on in the parliament but which has been adopted by the committee, freedom of the press still appears to be crucial: “protect, protect and strengthen freedom of the media “. He also added that the European Parliament was always following up and observing the situation in the country where it has listened to many voices of NGOS who are critical of human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
“In addition, in the European Parliament, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Subcommittee on Human Rights have heard on several occasions NGOs particularly critical of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.” He stated
He also referred to the European Parliament Magnistki Act resulttion adopted in March 2019 which calls for sanctions against regimes such as impose asset freezes and visa bans on individuals involved in grave human rights violations. The list should include state and non-state actors who have contributed, physically, financially or through acts of systemic corruption, to such abuse and crimes, worldwide.
“There are two weaknesses in this follow-up. First, the inadequacy of European and international arrangements. Thus, the US application of the Magnistki Act sanctions, which was largely taken up by the EU following the targeted assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. But Fedérica Mogherini said in 2018: “Those who are responsible, truly responsible, for this terrible murder must be held accountable.” MbS is still unconcerned, however, and when the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee received the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al Joubeir, on 21 January, the latter repeated that the assassination was committed by enemies of thestate, which is not credible” he added
He also noted that there is an incredible tolerance of the international community with Saudi Arabias actions; whereby Saudi Arabia organised an International Media Forum in December 2019 despite their crackdown on the Shiite minority, war in Yemen, funding of the Syrian armed groups, tensions with Qatar.
Torture in Saudi Arabia
Some Saudi Arabian human rights and women’s rights activists are subjected electrical shocks, lashings and different forms of sexual violence. How could that be stopped through the European Parliament and its competent committees?
Thierry Mariani MEP: Let me begin by first expressing my disgust at such practices. And let me also point out that it is not possible for us to continue to deal with the subject from the perspective of “double standards in the region.” What is denounced in Iran, must be denounced in Saudi Arabia, despite our privileged commercial relations. Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention against Torture in 1997, which already condemns such practices, but has never ratified the following addendums and the international pact on civil and political rights. This is what UNHCR’s Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in 2018 wrote:
“Despite positive findings, in his report, the Special Rapporteur expresses concerns and makes crucial recommendations on human rights, Referring to outrageous anti-terrorism and security legislation aimed at stifling dissent, an overly vague definition of terrorism that often serves as a basis for prosecuting people who peacefully defend human rights and journalists, as well as the systematic repression in the eastern province, where the majority of the Shiite population resides. He also expressed concern at the number of reports of unfair trials before the Special Criminal Court, prolonged detentions, the use of torture, coerced confessions and a lack of transparency, and the fact that Saudi Arabia does not offer the minimum procedural safeguards during detention and interrogation and that its courts have a habit of considering the admissions obtained by coercion as evidence, which it says constitutes a blatant and systematic denial of justice.”
It should not be noted, for example, that the European Parliament passed a resolution on women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia in February 2019, after another in May 2018, and one on Raif Badawi in 2015, but for what result? Saudi Arabia is ranked 170th in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom rankings. And Raif Badawi,convicted of cartoons, is still in solitary confinement! It would continue to detain some 30 journalists and bloggers.
This does not mean that the European Parliament must stand idly by. It must adopt a realistic approach to the handling of these cases, and require Saudi Arabia to implement the agreements signed with the EU. Thus, it is hoped that the European External Action Service will carry out a less media-related coordination and alerting action to help the victims of these unacceptable practices.
What does the European Parliament to ensure that Saudi Arabia is following the UPR Recommendations towards respecting freedom of expression?
Thierry Mariani MEP: Let us first remember that the Universal Periodic Review (i.e. UPR) took place in November 2018, a month after the cruel and barbaric killing of Jamal Khashoggi,I do not think it impressed the crown prince very much. Furthermore, at that meeting, the Saudi delegation recalled that the establishment of human rights was linked to Sharia law. There is a fundamental problem in this association: Sharia law is the fruit of a religious universe, when many imagine human rights as the result of a form of “secular religion”. We see the difficulty of appreciation: how to defend freedom of the press in the name of human rights in a country that forbids apostasies, denying Islam to change religion or asserting atheism, on pain of death?
Moreover, the report clearly stated the existence of a biased discourse on press freedom in Saudi Arabia: “28. Reporters Without Borders and the authors of Joint Communications 1o sand 11 note that Saudi Arabia calls on all media and publications to respect ill-defined standards for “good speech” and state laws that expressly prohibit the publication of content considered by the authorities to be detrimental to national security or state public relations, or anything that could lead to internal unrest.”
Executive function should not be confused with legislative function. However, the European Parliament, through its committees, and also its working groups, regularly inquires about the situation in Saudi Arabia: receiving human rights defenders, voting resolutions on specific cases.
I also want to stress my responsibility as President of the intergroup “Eastern Christians” and my great attention to the defense of religious freedom, in particular the right to buildreligious buildings, churches and temples for Christians, mosques for Shiites, etc., and the end of the death penalty for apostasy..
Some countries recommended to stop arms export to Saudi Arabia . What is your opinion towards that?
Thierry Mariani MEP: First of all, I would like to point out one thing that matters: it is the wars that never end that blow up the arms trade. Where the international community should act in the conflict in Yemen is in the search for a balance between its interlocutors, a balance that would have spread peace much earlier.
As you know, my country, France, has long chosen a very privileged relationship with Saudi Arabia. The mere consultation of the conversions of the high-ranking officers of the French army in connection with the petromonarchy gives a good indication of this. Unless we are naïve, it is clear that the arms trade with Saudi Arabia will not stop tomorrow. There is no need to return to the incantations against the money of the gunners, they make the centuries with a constant inefficiency (ineffectiveness)
On the other hand, we, as a state, and protector of its industries, which benefit very massively from state orders and networks, must limit the scope and use of the armaments that are delivered. Realism does not exclude ethics. This is what presided over the decision of the Belgian Council of State by blocking 17 export licences to Riyadh because the conditions were not met to ensure that these weapons would not be used in Yemen. And that’s fine.
So I think the question needs to be asked differently: can we decently be satisfied that Saudi Arabia is leading an international coalition in Yemen, when our conscience is resuming the way it is conducting the war? Doesn’t this ambiguity relativistic all the statements that condemn the Russian bombing but applaud the American bombing, which disapprove of Iranian proxies in Yemen but sit at the same table as the worst Islamists in Syria?
What shocks me, rather than the arms trade, is the place given to an unreliable ally, dubious Islamist friendships and which does not aim at the common good in Yemen. And this imbalance, this bias, in favor of the oil monarchies of the Gulf, is a deeply destabilizing element for the Middle East, but also for the Horn of Africa, where their investments are redoubling.
By Sarhan Basem, exclusively for Newswire Now network.
Sarhan Basem Accredited Journalist to the European Commission and Member of the International Federations of Journalists( IFJ). He is also an international Journalist who reported from a number of war zones in the Middle East.
Views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Newswire now. Newswire now does not assume any responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, topicality or quality of the information provided.