Activists on two continents are trying to disrupt Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first global tour since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate last month.
The tour – which includes visits to Arab-allied countries and the G20 summit in Argentina – is widely seen as an attempt by the Crown Prince to rehabilitate his image in the wake of a global fallout over the Saudi journalist’s killing in Istanbul on October 2.
In Tunisia, where the Crown Prince landed Tuesday, opponents of the de facto Saudi leader have been mobilizing since last week.
Meanwhile, in Argentina, the state prosecutor has cleared the way for a formal investigation into possible criminal charges against bin Salman.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch lodged a complaint in Argentina against the Crown Prince, invoking a constitutional war crimes clause as grounds to investigate bin Salman for possible crimes against humanity in Yemen and the killing of Khashoggi.
Saudi officials admit a premeditated murder happened on its diplomatic premises in Istanbul, though it denies the Crown Prince was involved.
Bin Salman, known as MBS, is expected to attend the summit on November 30. Argentina’s foreign ministry confirmed Wednesday that the Crown Prince will not be arrested on arrival in the country because he has diplomatic immunity.
The prince’s first leg of the trip began last week in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, whose Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is considered his staunchest ally. He then visited Bahrain and Egypt before arriving in the Tunisian capital on Tuesday afternoon.
In Tunis, the birthplace of the 2011 pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings, hundreds of demonstrators waved banners and pamphlets expressing disapproval of the prince’s visit. “No hellos, and no welcomes to the killer of Yemen’s children,” read one protest banner.
A giant poster hung on the façade of the office of the journalists’ union depicting a shadowy bin Salman carrying a chain saw, an allusion to the reported dismemberment of Khashoggi. “No to the desecration of the land of revolutionary Tunis,” read the text above the image.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to Habib Bourguiba street – previously the epicenter of the uprising which unseated Tunisia’s longtime dictator in 2011 – for two days of protests that included satirical theatrical performances which portrayed bin Salman as a murderous clown.
“The demonstrations in Tunisia expressed what many of the citizens of Egypt and Algeria could not,” said Egyptian lawyer and human rights activist Tarek Hussein, who attended the protests. “The presence of people on the street rejecting the visit of bin Salman is an important message to everyone that dictatorships are not welcome anywhere.”
But Noureddine ben Ticha, a political adviser to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, told CNN the prince was still welcome in Tunisia, stressing the historic bonds between the two countries.
Prince at the G20
At the G20, bin Salman will come face-to-face with Western leaders who have been increasingly critical of the Saudi leader since the widely publicized Khashoggi murder. The CIA concluded last week that the Crown Prince personally ordered the killing, according to a senior US official and a source familiar with the matter.
Calls among Western countries for a ceasefire in Yemen – where a Saudi and Emirati-led coalition is waging a three-plus-year war against Iranian-backed rebels – have grown. Germany suspended lucrative arms deals with the kingdom last week. Denmark and Finland have followed suit.
Yemen has been dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian disaster by the United Nations. According to a joint statement this week by international aid groups, 14 million people are at risk of starving to death in Yemen. The country is home to the world’s worst famine in 100 years, according to the UN.
Human Rights Watch’s legal action against bin Salman is the latest blow to the prince’s years-long campaign to boost the kingdom’s image in a bid to attract Western investment.
“Immunity didn’t work for the architects of Argentina’s dirty war, many of whom were prosecuted and served long prison sentences,” Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote in a tweet, referring to former officials convicted in the so-called dirty war trials in 2017. “So will the Saudi Crown Prince risk an immunity claim to show up at the G20 summit as Argentine prosecutors investigate him?”
Argentina’s constitution recognizes universal jurisdiction for war crimes and torture, allowing courts to investigate and prosecute such crimes regardless of where they were committed and the nationality of the suspects or victims.
But the administration of US President Donald Trump has so far shielded the Crown Prince from any tangible impact. Last week, Trump signaled that he would not take strong action against Saudi Arabia or bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder.
And on Monday, two sources told CNN that the US has “slammed the brakes on” a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a limited ceasefire and increased humanitarian aid in Yemen over concerns about angering Saudi Arabia.
The draft resolution, crafted by the UK and obtained by CNN, is already seen by human rights groups as disappointingly watered-down: It calls for a ceasefire only in Hodeidah, the principal Red Sea port through which some 80% of humanitarian aid flows.
The resolution is not at all critical of Saudi Arabia, and in fact compliments Saudi action; it is critical only of the Houthi rebels, who have been fighting the Saudi-led coalition while maintaining control of the capital Sanaa.
Journalist Houda Zaghdoudi, CNN’s Michelle Kosinski and Jackie Castillo contributed to this report.