As It Happens

French lawsuit accuses Saudi crown prince of complicity in torture

A group of French lawyers have filed a lawsuit against the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on behalf of human rights activists in Yemen. And since the suit was filed while the Prince was in France, a French judge now must investigate.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conducts a meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May with other members of their delegations, inside 10 Downing Street, London, on Wednesday March 7, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Associated Press)

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is wrapping up a three-day tour of France.

He has dined with French President Emmanuel Macron at Elysée Palace and secured draft contracts between French and Saudi companies worth approximately $18 billion.

But his ongoing charm offensive was knocked off-course by an event he hadn't scheduled: a lawsuit filed in French courts by a Yemeni human rights group, accusing him of complicity in torture in the war in Yemen. 

The conflict in Yemen has killed more than ten thousand people, and displaced more than three million. 

Laurence Greig is one of the French lawyers who helped file the case. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 10, 2018. (Yoan Valat/Reuters)

Ms. Greig, what did Mohammed bin Salman do, according this lawsuit?

According to the plaintiff, there is the existence of indiscriminate shelling by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen affecting civilian populations there, and that can be qualified as acts of torture. Also, the complainant accused the coalition of depriving millions of people basic necessities due to the indiscriminate bombing and also the naval blockade of ports in Yemen. 

When you say the coalition, the other partners that Saudi Arabia has in its war in Yemen, that would include the United States?

Yes, exactly, the coalition is led by Saudi Arabia, but there are also elements concerning other state members of the coalition. 

What is the alleged role Mohammed bin Salman played in this?

The complainant accuses him as he was the Minister of Defence at the time Saudi Arabia launched the war in Yemen. He ordered the first bombing on Yemeni territory.

French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Al Saud, right, attend a signature ceremony during the meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 10, 2018. (Yoan Valat/Reuters)

But the complainant is not just saying there was indiscriminate bombing, they're accusing him of complicity in torture in Yemen. What is that in reference to? 

Yes, because the indiscriminate attacks can be qualified as torture according to the Convention on Torture and that's what gives the French courts universal jurisdiction to investigate such acts. 

What can you tell us about the timing of this? Why, at this particular time, are French courts pursuing Mohammed bin Salman? 

Mohammed bin Salman was in France on an official visit. The French courts have jurisdiction to investigate the case the minute the prince is on French soil. That's why we were waiting for his visit to launch this complaint.

Is it possible that he could be arrested before he leaves?

Well, at first, before he's arrested, he could be asked by the investigating judge to attend a hearing to explain himself. What we hope for is that there is an impartial investigation in some part of the world about the ongoing conflict and ongoing violation of humanitarian rights. We are waiting for a leader of the coalition to explain themselves ... concerning these massive and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. 

Justice takes time, and hopefully it takes time, because you have to gather information before you detain someone. Even if he's a Prince, he must have the same treatment as anyone. 

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, second right, flanked by French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, attends a meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman upon his arrival at the Hotel de Matignon in Paris, France, April 9, 2018. (Eric Feferberg/Reuters)

It's possible that you won't even get him in a court to explain himself. So what's the purpose of this, what do you think you can accomplish by filing this suit in a French court?

We hope at some point there will be a trial and maybe this complaint helps to raise awareness about this conflict and what our leaders do, because France is also a large arms seller, and we hope that this issue of arm trade, humanitarian law violation, can be brought to public debate. It could be an example for international justice in general. 

Saudi Arabia's response to your lawsuit, saying that it's ridiculous, the foreign minister says the human rights abuses are on the part of the Houthi rebels that the coalition is fighting, they say that they are the ones violating human rights law, and Saudi Arabia is acting completely within international humanitarian law. 

First of all, it's true, we do not deny that also, the Houthis ... have violations of international law. But on the other hand, we also say that we do not agree with the allegation that Saudi Arabia completely complies with its international obligations. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Imogen Birchard.