France’s president Emmanuel Macron’s decision to host Mohammed bin Salman for talks in Paris has been criticised by human rights campaigners who described the Saudi prince as a man who “does not tolerate dissent”.
Prince Mohammed, who is visiting Europe for the first time in nearly four years since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was welcomed by Macron with a long handshake at the Elysée Palace before the pair were due to dine together.
The Saudi prince’s visit follows a red-carpet stopover in Greece and marks a further step in Prince Mohammed’s rehabilitation after Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 in what a UN investigation described as an “extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible”.
The French prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, insisted Macron would raise human rights concerns but would also seek to secure a boost in Saudi oil output amid mounting western concerns over energy shortages this winter after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. No remarks were expected after the working dinner.
“Obviously, this isn’t about casting aside our principles. It’s not about calling into question our commitment in favour of human rights. The president will surely have an opportunity to talk about this with Mohammed bin Salman,” Borne said.
But she added: “In a context where we know that Russia is cutting … gas supplies and where we have tensions over energy prices, I think the French would not understand if we didn’t talk to the countries that are, precisely, producers of energy.”
A Macron aide said that for the president “to have an influence and tackle the problems that European countries and France face … the only way is to talk with all of our partners”, repeating France’s demand that those responsible for Khashoggi’s brutal strangling and dismemberment be “brought to justice”.
During his visit, the Saudi crown prince stayed at the lavish Château Louis XIV in Louveciennes, a wealthy suburb west of Paris. Built in 2009, the 7,000-square-metre chateau was acquired by Prince Mohammed in 2015 for a reported €275m, prompting Fortune magazine to call it the world’s most expensive home.
The UN’s investigation into Khashoggi’s death concluded that there was “credible evidence” to justify further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Prince Mohammed, who US intelligence agencies have said approved the operation. Riyadh has blamed rogue agents.
The US president, Joe Biden, travelled to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, greeting the crown prince with a fist bump, while Macron visited the kingdom for talks with him last December and Britain’s Boris Johnson followed suit in March.
Human rights groups and Khashoggi’s fiancee were strongly critical. Prince Mohammed’s visit to France and Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia “do not change the fact that [Prince Mohammed] is anything other than a killer”, said Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, describing the 36-year-old crown prince as a man who “does not tolerate dissent”.
Callamard, who at the time of the killing was the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and who led its independent investigation, told Agence France-Presse she was “profoundly troubled by the visit, because of what it means for our world and what it means for Jamal [Khashoggi] and people like him”.
The crown prince’s reception by world leaders was “all the more shocking given many of them at the time expressed disgust and a commitment not to bring him back into the international community”, she added, denouncing “double standards” and “values … being obliterated in the face of concern about the rising price of oil”.
The head of Human Rights Watch in France, Bénédicte Jeannerod, tweeted that Bin Salman could “apparently count on Emmanuel Macron to rehabilitate him on the international stage despite the atrocious murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the pitiless repression of all criticism by the Saudi authorities, and war crimes in Yemen”.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, told AFP she was “scandalised and outraged” that Macron was receiving “with all the honours the executioner of my fiance”. She added: “All the international investigations carried out up to this point … recognise [Prince Mohammed’s] responsibility in the assassination.”
Two NGOs, the US-based Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), which Khashoggi founded in 2018, and the Swiss campaign group Trial International, on Thursday filed a joint formal complaint in Paris against Prince Mohammed for “complicity in torture” and “enforced disappearance”.
The initiative, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, was filed under universal jurisdiction, which allows a state to try crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of torture committed outside its territory. The NGOs argued that as crown prince, Prince Mohammed does not benefit from diplomatic immunity.
“As a party to the conventions against torture and the enforced disappearances, France is obliged to investigate a suspect like Bin Salman if he is on French territory,” said Dawn’s executive director, Sarah Leah Whitson, according to Le Monde.
Abdullah Alaoudh, Dawn’s Gulf region director, told FranceInfo radio that Prince Mohammed’s visit to France was “shameful. We think he is trying to whitewash his crimes … He is an unstable dictator and walking hand in hand with him is dishonourable.”
Legal experts said it was unlikely that Prince Mohammed would be summoned during his stay, since it normally takes weeks before an investigating magistrate is appointed. The crown prince may, however, be deterred from returning to France by the complaint, a lawyer for the NGOs told the paper. (Source: The Guardian)