LONDON -- U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to bring up human rights concerns when he meets with Saudi leaders in Jeddah on Friday as part of his first Middle Eastern trip, but the visit has been surrounded by considerable intrigue and controversy.
During his presidential campaign, Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah state” over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but he has refused to answer whether he will bring up the case specifically with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom once seen as a reformer, but who now has a reputation for targeting his critics and crushing dissent.
Human rights campaigners have expressed concern that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record once again may be overlooked in favor of cheap oil, especially since the West is in need of alternative energy options following the war in Ukraine.
The awkward nature of the visit is perhaps summed up by the White House’s refusal to even say whether Biden will shake the Crown Prince’s hand.
But for the families of those who killed in a mass execution earlier this year, which saw 81 people executed on March 12 in what human rights groups condemned as a “massacre,” the trip is seen as nothing less than legitimizing the Kingdom’s regime.
Hamza al-Shakhouri’s brother, Mohammad al-Shakhouri, was executed in March after being convicted of crimes relating to various “terrorist” activities. But in a letter in November 2021, UN special rapporteurs said that they had received evidence that al-Shakouri’s confession, relied on by state prosecutors, was based on torture, and they appealed to the Kingdom to overturn his sentence. The reported use of coerced confessions as evidence of guilt, they said, “would constitute a blatant violation of due process and of fair trial guarantees.”
Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism laws have been criticized by the UN as being “unacceptably broad” which have been used against “human rights defenders, writers, bloggers, journalists and other peaceful critics.”
The Kingdom’s secretive judicial system has long drawn condemnation from human rights campaigners for failing to meet the basic standards of due process.
“President Biden has attempted to justify his visit to Saudi Arabia and pledged that his government will not tolerate authorities harassing dissidents and activists,” Hamza said in a statement shared with ABC News by the human rights charity Reprieve. “The Saudi regime doesn't just harass those who speak out against it; it murders them. My brother is just one of the many victims.”
Yasser al-Khayat, the brother of Mustafa al-Khayat who was also executed in March for alleged “terrorist” activities, told ABC News that the family have still not received his body for a proper burial. According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, Mustafa was also tortured into signing a confession having been held in solitary confinement for six months.
"We are still mourning,” he said in a statement shared with ABC News. “This visit legitimizes Mohammed bin Salman's actions, sending the message that my brother's life doesn't matter and that America will continue to support the regime no matter how many of us they kill."
"Americans often describe their country as the world's greatest democracy but its president is partnering with a man who has killed countless people like my brother for daring to ask for those same democratic rights,” he said.
Both men are now outside Saudi Arabia, and so were able to provide their testimony without imminent fear of reprisals.
The White House did not respond to a requests for comment from ABC News on whether officials will raise concerns about Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty during the visit to Jeddah.
Reprieve’s Director, Maya Foa, described the current climate under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman as an “execution crisis.”
“The authorities are on track to execute more people this year than ever before,” Foa told ABC News. “Child defendants, pro-democracy protesters and people convicted of non-violent drug crimes are among those at risk. There are likely thousands of people on death row but the justice system is so secretive that we simply don't know how many."
ABC News' Ben Gittleson contributed to this report