US intelligence authorities got wind of a plan by Saudi Arabia to put Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi under surveillance in the UK last year, and has urged their British counterparts to keep a close eye on her, western intelligence sources said.
The US believed the kingdom had the “ambition and intention” to monitor Cengiz in London last May, seven months after Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to obtain papers so the couple could marry.
It is not clear if the intended surveillance of Cengiz was electronic or physical, or if it was successful.
Cengiz, who is Turkish, has been an outspoken advocate for justice for Khashoggi, who was killed in October 2018.
However, the revelation that intelligence agencies feared Cengiz was being targeted in this way – and that Saudi Arabia was preparing to do so in the UK so soon after the outcry over Khashoggi’s murder – will have caused alarm in the diplomatic community.
It will also highlight the concerns of human rights activists, who have long argued the Saudis are using surveillance to monitor and intimidate dissidents and critics of the kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to put a lid on the whole [Khashoggi] thing, so it is understandable that they would try to make sure that Hatice’s voice and advocacy is limited,” said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi activist and fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “All sorts of unlawful behaviour continues, nothing has changed.”
US intelligence officials have determined with a medium to high degree of confidence that the killing was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. Saudi Arabia has denied the prince was personally involved.
The revelation about Cengiz suggests that, far from reining in a Saudi campaign to silence critics at home and abroad, the Saudi government is reinforcing what one former Obama administration official called the state’s “posture” to monitor dissidents and critics.
“They use a variety of tools as a matter of course. It is state policy,” said Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert who served on the National Security Council under Barack Obama. “The second point is that obviously the fallout from the Khashoggi murder has not fundamentally changed the Saudi state’s posture. Fortunately no one else has been kidnapped and killed but they are still pursuing information about their opponents.”
New details about the surveillance concerns will ignite further criticism of the Saudi government as UN investigators have called for a thorough examination of new claims that Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of the Washington Post, was seemingly hacked after being sent a WhatsApp video file from the personal account of Prince Mohammed.
Agnès Callamard and David Kaye, UN special rapporteurs who are investigating the matter, have pointed to a “pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents” of the kingdom, especially people who are of “strategic importance”.
Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, has declined to comment publicly, but this week tweeted a picture of himself standing next to Cengiz at a memorial for Khashoggi in Istanbul. He used the hashtag #Jamal in the post.
A spokesman for Saudi Arabia in Washington did not return a request for comment. The Guardian contacted Cengiz’s assistant, but Cengiz declined to provide a comment.
Saudi Arabia has previously denied using surveillance tools against human rights activists and critics of the kingdom. It has described the allegations about the hacking of Bezos’s phone as “absurd”. (Source: The Guardian)