Saudi Arabia squeezes detainees as it tries to seize assets

More than 200 people are detained in luxury hotels in Riyadh, including the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, as the government tries to seize hundreds of billions of dollars in assets.

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - A tycoon was called home to Saudi Arabia from abroad for a business meeting and detained when he returned. A billionaire was ordered to turn himself in or be picked up like a common criminal. An official was called in to discuss an attack that apparently never happened.

Now those three are among the more than 200 people detained in luxury hotels in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, as the government tries to seize hundreds of billions of dollars in assets it says they stole through corrupt means.

Two weeks after the crackdown began, Saudi officials and their supporters are attempting to justifying the indefinite detentions as an ordinary part of a plea-bargaining process, similar to the approach Western prosecutors use with white-collar criminals.

But human rights groups say the comparison ignores critical differences, like legal protections for the accused and an independent judiciary to weigh allegations. Instead, such comparisons appear to point to the desire to raise money as a primary motivation behind the sudden arrests.

"This appears to be taking place outside anything that resembles a clear legal process," said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who monitors Saudi Arabia.

"If the Saudi authorities don't offer a chance for legal defence, then this is nothing other than a shakedown."

Defenders of the Saudi approach describe its avoidance of court cases as a benefit, not a drawback.

"If you are facing a situation where you have to take in as many people as you do, and of such prominence, if you are going to have a legal process, it will drag on for years, assuming that you have the legal bandwidth to do it," said Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a research organisation in Washington that is close to the Saudi government.

Shihabi said he expected that most detainees would settle by turning over assets to the state.

"The remaining parties that don't want to settle will be subjected to due process, with all the bells and whistles," he said, "because you need to be able to show that to access the assets, most of which are held abroad".

But even those who applaud the Saudi government for taking steps to get rid of endemic corruption say its reliance on an opaque and ad hoc process could hinder later efforts to recuperate assets.

Any efforts to retrieve wealth from United States, Britain, Switzerland or other Western countries where rich Saudis have vast holdings would require demonstrating that Saudi Arabia had followed international standards of human rights and due process.

Saudi defendants would then have the right to appeal in Western courts, a process that could prove lengthy and awkward for a kingdom that does not like to have its private business made public.

"Human rights are a critical aspect of international cooperation in judicial matters," said Gretta Fenner, the managing director of the Basel Institute on Governance and an expert on the recovery of assets in corruption cases.

The arrests began suddenly earlier this month, as the government detained more than 200 people, including at least 11 princes, current and former ministers, officers from the military and the National Guard, and some of the kingdom's most famous investors and businessmen.

Although many of the names were leaked, the government has refused to provide information on individual cases, citing privacy laws.

Many of the detained are being held at Riyadh hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton, where US President Donald Trump was received during his visit to Riyadh this year, and near where the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, appealed last month to thousands of international investors and business people to invest in the kingdom.

Because of the scarcity of detailed statements by the government on the process and the stark fear among the relatives and associates of the detained, much remains unclear about who is being held, under what conditions and for exactly what purpose.

Fatimah S. Baeshen, the spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said Monday that the corruption charges were being treated as "white collar" crimes.

The anti-corruption committee, which was created by royal decree, is pursuing its mandate in "a responsible and judicious way", with oversight from the public prosecutor "to ensure that the committee is complying with the relevant laws and regulations," Baeshen said.

Some of those under investigation have had travel bans and asset freezes lifted, while others are still under review, she said.

"In terms of access to legal counsel and other advice, those who are under investigation have the right to seek counsel and advice," Baeshen said.

"Some have requested it and all are allowed it. All of those under investigation are in consistent touch with family members." Shihabi, of the Arabia Foundation, said the crackdown sought to deter corruption and recuperate stolen wealth that could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars if real estate was included.

He acknowledged that the settlement process could appear arbitrary, but said quick reforms were what the kingdom needed.

"Is it unfair to some people?" Shihabi said. "Of course. It is a blunt instrument." But everyone, he said, will be left with enough wealth to be comfortable. "It is not like they are being hung upside down - they are at the Ritz," he said.

Much about the process, however, would raise red flags in the West.

Associates of three people who were detained said they had been summoned on false pretences and taken into custody. The associates said their colleagues had not had any contact with their lawyers and had made only brief phone calls to their families, in which they could provide no information on their whereabouts or status. The associates spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to make matters worse for the detainees.

A doctor at the nearest hospital and a US official tracking the situation said that up to 17 of the detainees had required medical attention because of abuse by their captors.

Baeshen, the embassy spokeswoman, said that none of the detainees had been mistreated. "As a standard practice, comprehensive medical and health care is available for any individuals who may require it due to pre-existing conditions or age," she said.

Raising other rights concerns, a disgraced former Egyptian security chief with a reputation for brutality and graft, Habib el-Adli, was advising the government on the crackdown, according to a former Egyptian interior minister and a close associate of el-Adli.

Baeshen disputed those reports. "Gen Adli does not currently, nor has he ever, worked in any advisory capacity to the Saudi government," she said.

Few disagree that Saudi Arabia has suffered from widespread and systematic corruption for decades and that cleaning up business practices in the kingdom would benefit its people. But anti-corruption campaigners note how difficult it is for governments to retrieve assets stashed abroad.

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said that despite the billions of pounds in corrupt assets believed to be in Britain, few are ever seized and repatriated.

The Arab Spring uprisings across the Arab world that started in 2011 led to the seizure of only one house, he said.

And foreign governments asking for help recuperating assets may find that their legal cases will not past muster in Britain.

"It remains to be seen whether the evidence provided would stand up to scrutiny in a UK court," Hames said.

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