Lina al-Hathloul (left) and Abdullah al-Qahtani (right) participate in a press conference moderated by Right Livelihood's Johannes Mosskin (centre) on November 30, 2023, in Stockholm.

International community must call out sportswashing and human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia

Press releases 30.11.2023

STOCKHOLM – The international community must not be deceived by Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing and call out the country over its despicable human rights record, human rights activists and family members of Saudi political prisoners said at a press conference on Thursday.

The event highlighted Saudi Arabia’s practice of striking expensive sports deals in order to whitewash its human rights record. That record also includes imprisoning people calling for political reforms, including the prominent human rights defender and 2018 Right Livelihood Laureate Mohammad al-Qahtani.

Abdullah al-Qahtani, his son, called for his father’s immediate release at the press conference. The activist has been forcibly disappeared since October 2022, just a month shy of completing a 10-year sentence.

His family has been unable to contact him since his twice-daily phone calls abruptly stopped one month before his release date.

Abdullah al-Qahtani explained his family’s challenges in obtaining information about his father’s whereabouts.

“Up until a few months ago, the prison would tell my mom, ‘He’s okay. Don’t worry about him,’” he said. “But now when she calls the prison, they say, ‘He’s not here.’ The US Embassy in Riyadh even sent officials to check in on him, and they were refused entry at the gate.”

After the press conference, Abdullah al-Qahtani went to the Saudi Embassy in Stockholm and handed a letter demanding his father’s release to a Saudi diplomat.

Lina al-Hathloul, the Head of Monitoring and Advocacy at ALQST for Human Rights, emphasised the impact of Mohammad al-Qahtani’s work.

“Mohammad al-Qahtani is one of the only people who managed to unify the Saudi people around his cause,” she said. “Everyone sees him as a hero. He managed to define what human rights and dignity are for Saudis.”

Al-Hathloul is also the sister of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was imprisoned and tortured for advocating for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Human rights abuses, such as the imprisonment and torture of activists, often go unnoticed because Saudi Arabia uses sports to seem like a friendly country internationally.

“Sports have been popular vehicles for governments, including authoritarian regimes, to showcase the country’s economic and cultural assets to the global audience,” Abdullah al-Qahtani said. “But for Saudi, the goal is to hide all the human rights abuses they have committed.”

Al-Hathloul said that sports deals often profit the very people who are directly responsible for human rights abuses.

“The danger of sports-washing is that it’s the crown prince himself that we’re giving the money, influence, and power to,” al-Hathloul said. “We are empowering and normalising someone who has tortured and imprisoned people like my sister and al-Qahtani.”

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