Geneva Human Rights & Democracy Summit – The Update

James Jones, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, addresses the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On the reluctance of the outside world to condemn Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations:

“Unlike North Korea and unlike ISIS, Saudi Arabia is not a pariah state and it’s not a universally-hated terrorist organisation. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Britain and America.”

“The British government was reluctant to condemn [public flogging], pointing out that a large part of the population support this punishment. I wonder if they would say the same thing about a suspected thief in Raqqa having his hand chopped off or indeed a gay man being thrown from a rooftop.”

“Astonishingly, not far from where we’re sitting now, Saudi Arabia still sits on the UN Human Rights Council.”

On suffering in Saudi Arabia:

“A woman was being held down by four police officers when a man in a long flowing robe approaches her with a sword as she’s screaming ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.’ He takes her head off with one blow of his sword.”

“Our footage revealed school children being indoctrinated in hatred. It revealed minorities like Shia Muslims being oppressed, young protestors as young as 16 being sentenced to death and women still suffering under the male guardianship system which effectively treats them as children.”

On resistance to the Saudi regime:

“Clips showed women in the streets being harassed by the notorious religious police for minor infringements of the dress code. What was interesting was that these women didn’t meekly apologise and scuttle away, many of them stood their ground, fought back and, you know, didn’t back down.”

“As ever with these places, once you lift the lid to expose what’s happening, the reality is far more interesting and complex than the caricature suggests.”

On the inspiration for ‘Saudi Arabia Uncovered’ and its impact:

“It struck me that there were people, there must be people inside Saudi Arabia who share the values of liberalism and tolerance…So, our next challenge to make this film was to find people who shared those values and were willing to take the risk of filming secretly for us.”

“After condemning our film in the strongest possible terms, a week later the Saudi government announced a change to the law. The religious police, who I mentioned earlier were harassing women, would no longer have the power to arrest. Sounds like a small step, but talking to Saudis inside the country, it feels like it’s made a big difference and it’s one sign of change in the right direction.”

Full Remarks

Thank you so much for playing that clip.

Since we’re talking with Hillel yesterday, like you, it may be emotional seeing that. I haven’t watched that for almost a year.

Thank you so much for having me here. I feel like a bit of a fraud, you know, I’m alongside all these genuine human rights activists and heroes who’ve risked their safety and their life and I’m just a filmmaker.

The last couple of days have been – I’m a cynical journalist – but they’ve been truly, kind of, inspiring and uplifting, hearing all these brave and dignified people talking.

So, as you saw in that clip, that was a documentary we made called Saudi Arabia Uncovered. I’ve made a number of films in the past which have exposed what happens inside secretive, repressive regimes like North Korea and ISIS-controlled Raqqa. We’ve worked with very brave activists who filmed secretly using undercover cameras to reveal the reality of their everyday lives.

I remember in January 2015 watching the news and a clip coming on, a clip that you’ve just seen there, of a young man standing in a square being whipped, being lashed publicly in front of a mosque, and a crowd around him cheering, and I thought to myself ‘what crime has this man committed to deserve such a punishment?’ or ‘is this just another video clip of ISIS barbarity?’ But as you just saw just then, it turned out that this young man was a young Saudi blogger called Raif Badawi whose crime was to mildly criticise the Saudi regime and to insult Islam. As you saw, we filmed with his family who’ve received asylum in Canada but Raif himself still sits in prison, has been sentenced to ten years in prison, and one thousand lashes. 

Watching that clip, it gave me the idea that, you know, someone, an activist or whoever, maybe just a bystander, had taken such a huge risk to film that clip. You can tell he’s trying to film over someone’s shoulder on his mobile phone and he then uploaded that. That in itself is a crime that could put him in prison for decades, but the fact that someone took that risk and was able to do it gave me the idea to try and apply the same technique that we had done in North Korea and Raqqa inside Saudi Arabia. 

The difference, unlike North Korea and unlike ISIS, it’s not a pariah state and it’s not a universally-hated terrorist organisation. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Britain and America. In fact, a couple of weeks after Raif was lashed, in the same month, the King of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, died, and leaders from around the world flocked to Riyadh to pay their respects; David Cameron, Barack Obama, you name it, they were there.

Britain sells billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and claims that we rely on their intelligence to keep ourselves safe at home. And, in fact, even the punishment of Raif Badawi, the public flogging, the British government was reluctant to condemn, pointing out that a large part of the population support this punishment. I wonder if they would say the same thing about a suspected thief in Raqqa having his hand chopped off or indeed a gay man being thrown from a rooftop.

So, it struck me that there were people, there must be people inside Saudi Arabia who share the values of liberalism and tolerance but that many of those, like Raif Badawi, were languishing in Saudi prisons. So, our next challenge to make this film was to find people who shared those values and were willing to take the risk of filming secretly for us. There is a network of young activists inside Saudi Arabia who do share these values and are aware of the outside world and who question the legitimacy of their rulers privately. But crucially, they understand the acute risk that voicing that criticism publicly could entail. In Saudi Arabia, dissidents are tried as terrorists and you can be jailed for up to a decade just for a tweet. So, we tapped into this network through dissidents in London who introduced us to a young man who we called Yasser, who you saw in that clip. We met him in Istanbul, trained him on the undercover camera, talked him through the safety protocol and he went back to Saudi Arabia to start filming secretly. 

Unlike North Korea, Saudi Arabia’s a technologically advanced country, so millions of people have mobile phones with cameras on them so it’s much harder for the Saudi regime to control what the world sees from inside, so as well as our undercover cameras, we were able to tap into this network who were filming clips on their mobile phones and sharing them on encrypted apps. These clips showed women in the streets being harassed by the notorious religious police for minor infringements of the dress code. What was interesting was that these women didn’t meekly apologise and scuttle away, many of them stood their ground, fought back and, you know, didn’t back down. As ever with these places, once you lift the lid to expose what’s happening, the reality is far more interesting and complex than the caricature suggests. 

Our undercover cameras also filmed inside slums. There are huge slums on the outskirts of Saudi cities, but even Saudis themselves wouldn’t know about them because filming them is a jailable, imprisonable offence so we filmed what the Saudis see as this dirty secret they go to great lengths to hide. Other clips showed men and women being beheaded in the street or being hanged from lampposts. In one particularly horrific clip, a woman was being held down by four police officers when a man in a long flowing robe approaches her with a sword as she’s screaming ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.’ He takes her head off with one blow of his sword. The policeman who filmed that clip was then arrested for defaming the Saudi regime. 

There’s this strange irony but for many years the Saudis have used these public punishments to instil fear in the population, to control the population, whereas now that technology has improved and the outside world is able to see these, the Saudis are suddenly far more reticent about punishing people publicly and increasingly do it behind closed doors like last year when they executed 47 supposed terrorists in one day.

As a filmmaker, it’s always better to go to the country for yourself, to see for yourself, to film for yourself, but unlike even North Korea, Saudi Arabia doesn’t give tourist visas and Western journalists who operate there are strictly controlled, strictly minded. So we knew we needed to – in order to be able to operate freely – we needed to come up with a cover story. So, we heard about a cyber security conference that would be taking place in Riyadh and we set up a fake company called Cyber Safe UK. We assumed we’d be one of many Western companies at this conference. As it turned out, we were the only ones and our stall was next to the Saudi Ministry of Interior and some of the most senior police officers in Saudi Arabia. 

But, our trip did mean that we were able to meet some of the activists who weren’t able to leave the country. One woman, Loujain Alhathloul, had campaigned against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. She was driving her car back across the border into Saudi and she was arrested and then imprisoned for 73 days without charge before being released. We were able to meet Loujain in a secret location and film an interview with her, and, in fact, she was the only Saudi activist inside the country brave enough to show her face. Just before the film was released, news got out that she’d taken part in the film and she received a number of death threats online and in one online poll, it asked ‘how should Loujain Alhathloul be punished for betraying the Saudi kingdom?’, and I think the options were ‘expulsion from Saudi Arabia’, ‘lashing’ or ‘death’ and ‘death’ came out on top with more than three-quarters of the votes. 

I also received a number of death threats after the film went out and the most frequent attack was ‘how dare you come into our country and criticise us!’, you know, ‘it’s for Saudis to criticise our own system’ and that’s a line the Saudi government itself frequently pursues in deflecting criticism. It’s an argument that might hold more water were Saudis not given long jail sentences for even mild criticism of their regime. 

Our footage revealed school children being indoctrinated in hatred. It revealed minorities like Shia Muslims being oppressed, young protestors as young as 16 being sentenced to death and women still suffering under the male guardianship system which effectively treats them as children. 

Sadly, none of this came as much surprise to Britain and America or any of Saudi’s Western allies who continue to see it as a close partner, who continued to sell them more arms than ever before, who continued to support their campaign in Yemen in which they’re accused of war crimes, and astonishingly, not far from where we’re sitting now, Saudi Arabia still sits on the UN Human Rights Council. 

After condemning our film in the strongest possible terms, a week later the Saudi government announced a change to the law. The religious police, who I mentioned earlier were harassing women, would no longer have the power to arrest. Sounds like a small step, but talking to Saudis inside the country, it feels like it’s made a big difference and it’s one sign of change in the right direction and I think that kind of reform at least gives some hope that pressure, both internal and external, does have an effect and some hope to people who are campaigning like many of the people here for the release of political prisoners like Raif Badawi. At a time when the media, the press, is under attack in places where you never thought it would be under threat, it’s perhaps encouraging that the bravery of activists, the advance of technology and the integrity of journalists to report these difficult stories should give us some cause for optimism.

Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

James Jones

Emmy-winning documentary-maker, producer of Saudi Arabia Uncovered

Related

Human Rights

Virtual: Human Rights in Saudi Arabia with Ali Al Ahmed

Ali Al Ahmed, formerly Saudi Arabia’s youngest political prisoner, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks. Quotes: To Be Confirmed Full Remarks To Be Confirmed

Political Prisoners

Why Raif is in Prison with Ensaf Haidar

Ensaf Haidar, wife of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up an online platform for political and religious debate, addresses the 11th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.