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Al-Huwaitat tribe seeks UN help to stop Saudi forced displacement

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Saudi Arabia’s al-Huwaitat tribe has sent an urgent communication to the United Nations calling for an investigation into allegations of forced displacement and abuse by Saudi authorities.

The request, submitted In late September, comes after months of alleged harassment, arrests, and abductions by Saudi forces apparently due to the tribe’s refusal to relocate to facilitate the government’s NEOM mega-city project.

Suleiman Mohammed al-Taqique al-Hwaiti, a prominent activist from the Indigenous tribe, was arrested and imprisoned in the week starting September 21, and his social media accounts were deactivated.

Thirteen other tribe members were allegedly abducted – apparently by the security forces – around the same time and are still being held in incommunicado in prison, according to an al-Huwaitat activist that spoke to Al Jazeera.

On October 1, a further two tribe members were arrested, one taken by Saudi security forces outside Fahad Bin Sultan University, after they had criticised the Saudi government and the NEOM project on social media. Their whereabouts are unknown, according to members of the tribe.

Controversial project

NEOM (standing for “New Future”) is a planned mega-city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia which aims to be “an accelerator of human progress”, according to its website.

The project is one of the cornerstones of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to reinvigorate and diversify the Saudi economy.

The planned mega-city would cover an area of 26,500 square kilometres (10,232 square miles) in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, also covering part of Egypt’s Sinai region which the Saudi government has leased from Egypt for a fee of about $10bn.

The total cost of the city is estimated to be more than $500bn, with financial backing supplied by the government’s Public Investment Fund.

Some 20,000 al-Huwaitat tribe members face eviction to make way for the project.

Though early marketing materials on the NEOM project claimed it would be built on “virgin land”, the al-Huwaitat tribe has been settled in the northwest Tabuk province for centuries, as well as in areas of Jordan and the Sinai.

“Mohammed Bin Salman [MBS] has decided to place this project in the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia – the mainstay of the al-Huwaitat tribe,” Dawn Chatty, professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera.

“But it’s not even trying to settle the tribe, it’s pretending they don’t exist. This is typical of the way Mohammed Bin Salman operates.”

This is not the first time the project has faced controversy.

In 2018, several members of the NEOM Advisory Board, including architect Norman Foster, suspended their involvement due to the Saudi government’s alleged involvement in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In April this year, Saudi citizen and al-Huwaitat tribe member Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti was killed by Saudi security forces. Al-Hwaiti was a vocal online presence who had denounced the NEOM project on numerous occasions.

The Saudi government claimed he was killed in a gun battle, and that security forces had found numerous weapons inside his house.

Two weeks after al-Hwaiti’s death, the Saudi Press Agency sent out a press release claiming people of the al-Huwaitat tribe had expressed support for MBS and the NEOM project.

‘They don’t care about our lives’

Al-Hwaiti’s killing made news across the world. Alya Alhwaiti, who represents the tribe from London, told Al Jazeera how global attention helped the al-Huwaitat’s cause.

“If it was not for the publicity, there would be a dozen Abdul Rahim [al-Hwaiti] cases by now,” she said.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia is increasingly concerned about its global image.

From hosting a range of global sports events in the country, to the Vision 2030 initiative which in part aims to “enhance the image of the kingdom internationally”, Saudi Arabia is gradually expanding its profile on the world stage.

NEOM, often described by Riyadh as the “world’s most ambitious project”, is another endeavour towards this aim.

Alya Alhwaiti said the government’s narrative around the construction of NEOM has changed since its announcement in 2016.

“At the beginning of the project, the government told the al-Huwaitat tribe that they would be involved in NEOM’s development and that their area would become one of the most famous in the world. The tribe was excited.”

In January 2020, though, the Crown Prince allegedly sent an assistant to al-Huwaitat areas, who told the tribe to accept compensation – a sum of just $3,000 per family – and leave their lands, or face eviction.

The tribe has refused to move and they claim Saudi authorities have started to punish their stance in a variety of ways.

Since that ultimatum was set, the tribe says it has been subject to kidnappings, harassment and threats. Prominent tribe members including seven of Abdul Rahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Hwaiti’s cousins were allegedly abducted and imprisoned incommunicado in the months preceding al-Hwaiti’s death.

The tribe says homes have been destroyed, electricity has been cut off randomly, and inexplicable fires have occurred. Tribe members’ employers have been pressured to make life difficult for the tribe.

“If a tribe member lives and works in the north, their employer may be ordered by the government to move them to the south,” Alya Alhwaiti said. “They don’t care about our lives.”

Neither NEOM nor the Saudi government responded to requests for comment.

Alya Alhwaiti said the tribe is united in its defiance and are staying in their homes despite being terrified about what Saudi security forces may do to them. “That’s their form of protest,” she said.

But after the most recent spate of abductions, during which 13 tribe members were abducted according to Alya Alhwaiti, the tribe decided to call on the UN to investigate the alleged abuses.

“What we want is for the world to support us in our case, to show them how the Mohammed bin Salman regime is abusing the people, terrifying the people,” Alya Alhwaiti said.

‘We have proof’

On September 23, a team of London lawyers working on behalf of the al-Huwaitat tribe sent an urgent communication to the UN urging them to intervene.

Rodney Dixon QC was one of the lawyers who submitted the communication.

“What’s happening there is certainly a violation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The rights of internally displaced people and Indigenous rights are enshrined in the UNDHR, which does bind Saudi Arabia. What we’re also focusing on is the human rights abuses – where people are being threatened, assaulted, and murdered. It’s also the violation of a person’s rights to life, and their right to wellbeing and safety.”

Dixon said UN action could change the tribe’s fortunes.

“At the moment there’s very little focus on it, but we’re hopeful that – through this UN action – attention can be afforded to it, [raising] sufficient profile for states within the UN, and the UN itself to take this case up,” Dixon explained.

If Saudi Arabia is found to be breaking human rights laws, then the Human Rights Council can make recommendations, although sanctions would have to be enacted by the general assembly and the security council.

The UN can also examine the implementation of human rights by companies.

Alya Alhwaiti said she is hopeful.

“We have proof of what the government is doing, we have evidence. There’s a big hope that we can get justice.”

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Amy Coney Barrett is now one step away from becoming a Supreme Court justice

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The Senate voted to end its debate over the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Sunday afternoon, a move that sets the stage for a final Senate floor vote for her confirmation on Monday.

Despite efforts by Democratic lawmakers to use procedural maneuvers to slow her appointment, Barrett is on track to be confirmed to the court just about a week before Election Day with almost unanimous support from Senate Republicans.

Republicans have moved quickly to seat Barrett on the court, following her nomination by President Donald Trump in late September. Democrats have protested Republicans working to fill the seat left open by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to the presidential election — particularly given the GOP blocked President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee for months in 2016, arguing that the winner of that year’s presidential election should get to fill any empty seats.

But Republicans have the votes needed to secure the judge’s place on the court, and the Senate Judiciary Committee began its confirmation hearings for Barrett on October 12.

And on Thursday, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Barrett’s nomination, despite the fact that every Democrat on the panel boycotted the meeting — which technically meant they didn’t have the required number of minority members needed to conduct business. Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) disregarded the requirement and proceeded anyway.

On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) deployed a number of tactics to try to slow down the nomination process, with little effect.

For example, he forced a closed Senate session on Friday for the first time since 2010. “The damage to Americans’ faith in these institutions could be lasting. So before we go any further, we should shut off the cameras, close the Senate and talk face to face about what this might mean for the country,” Schumer argued. But the GOP ended that session — which required cameras to leave — in just 20 minutes.

Schumer also tried to file several motions to delay the nomination process, like calling for the Senate to be adjourned until after the election unless both parties settle on a coronavirus relief package, but these all failed as the GOP-controlled Senate acted against them along party lines. Ultimately, McConnell filed a cloture motion, a mechanism for limiting debate, which set up Sunday’s vote.

Saturday, Schumer tried again to halt confirmation proceedings by raising coronavirus relief legislation, but was blocked by the GOP. And the Republicans’ position grew even stronger Saturday afternoon, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — one of just two Republican senators who had objected to confirming a justice before the election — saying she would in fact vote to confirm Barrett during a floor vote.

On Sunday Murkowski, along with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, were the only two Republicans to decline to vote to end debate. Murkowski, however, has signaled that her objection is over the timing of the vote, not with Barrett herself, and that she intends to vote to confirm Barrett on a floor vote.

“I’ve concluded she’s the sort of person we want on the Supreme Court,” Murkowski said of Barrett on Saturday, according to Politico. “While I oppose the process that led us to this point, I do not hold it against her.”

Barrett is likely to be confirmed Monday

A final confirmation vote is likely to take place on Monday evening, and barring unforeseen events, Barrett is all but certain to be confirmed.

Republicans need 51 votes to confirm Barrett, and have 53 in the Senate. They can afford to lose three votes, since Vice President Mike Pence can cast a tie-breaking vote in the case of a 50-50 draw.

But that is unlikely to be necessary, since only one Republican lawmaker is expected to defect: Collins, who is running a competitive race for reelection this year.

Political scientists say that the controversy surrounding the Barrett confirmation battle could increase turnout for the elections by illustrating how high stakes the next presidency is as the Supreme Court becomes an increasingly politicized institution.

According to polling for Data For Progress, likely voters split largely along party lines in their perception of whether it was appropriate for Republicans to press ahead with one of the most rapid confirmation processes in modern American history.

Schumer has indicated that the Democrats have considered boycotting the final confirmation vote in a display of dissent — and to send a message to the voters that they feel the process is illegitimate.

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White House defends Pence campaigning after aide’s COVID-19 test

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President Donald Trump’s chief of staff has defended a decision by Vice President Mike Pence to continue an aggressive campaign schedule even after Pence’s closest aide tested positive for COVID-19.

The decision to stay on the campaign trail, which was announced hours after the White House on Saturday said Pence’s Chief of Staff Marc Short tested positive for the virus, has been derided by public health experts.

At least four other people in Pence’s orbit have also tested positive, according to reports in United States media.

A spokesman for Pence, who has headed the White House coronavirus task force since late February, said he will continue to campaign with just nine days until the November 3 election because he is considered “essential personnel”. That exempts the vice president from quarantining, despite being a “close contact” to someone who has been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, the spokesman said.

Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, defended that assertion on Sunday, saying Pence is “not just campaigning, he’s working” during the last leg of the presidential contest.

Trump and Pence have multiple daily campaign events scheduled as part of a battleground-state blitz they hope will close the gap in polls with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Meadows said Pence will wear a mask while campaigning, except for when he speaks at rallies.

“He’s wearing a mask as it relates to this particular thing because the doctors have advised him to do that,” he said during the interview.

Meadows also appeared to confirm a New York Times report that he had sought to prevent details of the infection from going public. When asked about the report, he said: “Sharing personal information is not something that we should do, not something that we do actually do, unless it’s the vice president or the president, or someone that’s very close to them where there is people in harm’s way.”

Pence, who held in-person rallies in Florida on Saturday, most recently tested negative on Sunday morning, hours before he was set to host a campaign event in North Carolina. Trump had tested positive for the virus on October 2 but was later cleared to return to campaigning after being briefly hospitalised.

‘Grossly negligent’

The decision to continue campaigning has been widely criticised by public health experts.

Dr Ali Nouri, a molecular biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists, noted that Pence’s “negative test does not mean he is virus-free”.

“Even gold standard PCR tests don’t detect the virus in early stages when levels are low,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert at George Mason University, in an interview with The Associated Press news agency, called the decision “grossly negligent”.

“It’s just an insult to everybody who has been working in public health and public health response,” she said. “I also find it really harmful and disrespectful to the people going to the rally” and the people on Pence’s own staff who will accompany him.

“He needs to be staying home 14 days,” she added. “Campaign events are not essential.”

Meanwhile, Dr Leana Wen, a professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and the former health commissioner of Baltimore, said Pence’s decision sets a bad example for a country grappling with a new surge in cases.

The US has reported more than 83,000 new infections two days in a row, breaking its daily record for new cases on Friday. More than 224,000 people have died in the country from COVID-19.

“How can we ask our patients to follow public health guidelines when [Pence] won’t?” she wrote.

Cavalier approach

The plan for Pence largely underscores the cavalier approach to the coronavirus the Trump campaign has taken throughout the election season, even after the president, his wife and son tested positive.

The president has continued to host rallies with little social distancing and with some congregants not wearing masks. He has used his own experience, and the fact that his teenage son, Barron, was asymptomatic, to portray the pandemic as overblown by Democrats and the media.

As recently as Saturday, the president suggested the US might already have a vaccine if it were not for “politics”, renewing unfounded allegations that actors inside government agencies have been working to slow the development of an inoculant to hurt his chances at re-election.

That, despite public health experts repeatedly stressing that even the most ambitious timelines would not produce a safe vaccine before election day.

In an interview on Sunday, the White House’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci said it would be clear whether a government-supported COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective by early December, but more widespread vaccination would not be likely until later in 2021.

“We will know whether a vaccine is safe and effective by the end of November, the beginning of December,” Fauci told the BBC.

“When you talk about vaccinating a substantial proportion of the population, so that you can have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak, that very likely will not be until the second or third quarter of the year.”

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Road to 270: This state could be a ‘game over’ win for Biden

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CNN’s John King breaks down the spending and traveling of President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in the run-up to Election Day.

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