The Saudi official who is alleged to have twice issued threats against the independent UN investigator Agnès Callamard is the head of the kingdom’s human rights commission, and formerly served as an aide to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Awwad al-Awwad is alleged by a person familiar with the matter to have twice threatened to “take care of” Callamard at a January 2020 meeting with senior human rights officials in Geneva.
The Guardian first reported news of the threats earlier this week following an interview with Callamard in which she recalled being alerted to the threats by her UN colleagues. On Wednesday, the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) confirmed Callamard’s account.
“We confirm that the details in the Guardian story about the threat aimed at Agnès Callamard are accurate. After the threat was made, OHCHR informed Ms Callamard herself about it, as well as UN security and the president of the Human Rights Council, who in turn informed the relevant authorities,” said Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights.
The Guardian on Wednesday told a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington that it was intending to publish a story identifying Awwad as the individual who had made the alleged threats, and asked the Saudi government for a comment. Awwad, as well as being a former aide to the crown prince, served as the kingdom’s ambassador to Germany.
On Thursday, Awwad published a series of tweets in which he said it had come to his attention that Callamard and some UN officials believed he had issued the threats, which he denied “in the strongest terms”. He also raised the possibility that the story could have been “concocted” in order to distract people from “the important work we are doing to advance human rights in Saudi Arabia”.
“While I cannot recall the exact conversations, I never would have desired or threatened any harm upon a UN-appointed individual, or anyone for that matter,” he tweeted. “I am disheartened that anything I have said could be interpreted as a threat. I am an advocate for human rights and I spend my day working to ensure those values are upheld.”
He added: “As a former diplomat I understand the critical importance of dialogue even with people we may strongly disagree with … I see threats against the personal integrity of any individual as against my moral code. And they are a violation of the most sacred tenets of my religion.”
Callamard is a French national who has served as a special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings since 2016. She will take on a new role as secretary general of Amnesty International later this month.
The Guardian has learned that the UN took the alleged threats against Callamard seriously enough for officials in France to privately raise the issue with Saudi Arabia.
According to Callamard’s own account, based on what she was told by the UN, other Saudi officials who were present at the meeting sought to urge UN officials that Awwad’s remarks – that Callamard could be “taken care of” if the UN did not rein her in – ought not to be taken seriously. They later left the room while Awwad stayed behind and allegedly repeated his remark, saying that the “issue” needed to be taken care of.
The comments, which were perceived to be a threat, were made at a time when Callamard’s investigations were putting pressure on the kingdom.
In June 2019, Callamard released a report that found “credible evidence” that Bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, was responsible for the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
She was also investigating the alleged hacking of the Amazon chief executive, Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, by Saudi Arabia.
Callamard and David Kaye, who served at the time as a special rapporteur for the freedom of expression, published a statement on 22 January calling for an investigation into Bin Salman’s possible personal involvement in the deployment of spyware on Bezos’s phone. They also revealed that they had received information that a WhatsApp account belonging to the crown prince had allegedly sent digital spyware that enabled surveillance of Bezos’s phone. Saudi Arabia denied the allegation.
While Callamard and Kaye’s investigation was not public at the time of Awwad’s 20 January meetings with UN officials in Geneva, the investigators had sent a letter to the Saudi authorities days earlier – on 17 January 2020 – alerting the kingdom to the detailed allegations unearthed in their investigation and that they were planning to publish their findings. It is not clear whether Awwad was aware of the letter when he visited Geneva.
Callamard and Kaye wrote in their letter: “We may publicly express our concerns in the near future as, in our view, the information upon which the press release will be based is sufficiently reliable to indicate a matter warranting immediate attention. We also believe that the wider public should be alerted to the potential implications of the above-mentioned allegations. The press release will indicate that we have been in contact with your Excellency’s Government’s [sic] to clarify the issue/s in question.”
According to a press release issued by Saudi, Awwad met with UN officials three days after the letter was sent, on 20 January 2020.
The Saudi press release said Awwad had highlighted “a danger of politicising human rights” and called upon the Human Rights Council to “to unify efforts in the field of human rights and to avoid politicisation”.