A close friend and activist partner of the late Washington Post columnist Jamal Hashoghi, Abdulaziz continues Hashoghi’s reform mission by posting critical social media posts even when Saudi authorities threatened and imprisoned his brothers. Now the activist’s story, little known in the United States, may become more widespread with the release of the documentary The Dissident, which tells his and Khashoggi’s story.
The film was released on video over the weekend by Briarcliff Entertainment, an independent distributor, after major Silicon Valley streams Netflix, Amazon and Apple reported, The Post reported, handing over the film, presumably so as not to offend the Saudi government.
Briarcliff has released the film in 1
Briarcliff, led by film veteran Tom Ortenberg, runs a small business in the Middle East. Ortenberg says the company has not received any threats to date. The company’s financial exposure is also limited: it has spent less than $ 500,000 on rights, according to a person familiar with the negotiations, who was given anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about them, far below 5 up to $ 10 million that the streamer can pay for a documentary.
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said any referral to a distributor would likely come in the form of business restrictions in the kingdom. Abdulaziz should be more concerned, he said: The activist’s family may be subject to additional retribution.
Directed by Brian Vogel, who made the Oscar-winning Russian doping film Icarus, The Dissident turned Hashoghi’s assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – an act under which the CIA was commissioned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – in a film event. in Sundance. The film, funded by the Human Rights Foundation, won fans like Hillary Clinton while critics admired its style and imports.
But the late journalist is only part of the story. The Dissident also tells of a less expected figure, Abdulaziz, who not only seeks to continue the columnist’s work, but provides a kind of alternative story, recalling what Hashoghi could have done if he had not been killed.
In a secure video interview, Abdulaziz described his current life.
“I have six phones on my desk because my phone was hacked [by the Saudi government] in 2018, “he said. “I can go to a restaurant or a movie theater, but I can never tell anyone where I will be.” In his mind, he says, there are constant images of Khashoggi, who is said to have been slowly strangled by a team of agents and dismembered with bone. saw.
Abdulaziz was speaking from an unidentified place in Montreal. Even on Canadian soil, he has watched dangers lurk around every corner. He has been forced to resist numerous attempts to lure him back to his homeland, where he believes he will be arrested and tortured, even repelling prominent Saudi figures who have come to withdraw him.
His friends and two of his brothers are imprisoned in his homeland to put pressure on him to return.
Still, he continues Khashoggi’s work under constant threat of death, tweeting more than half a million followers (Twitter is a rare source of independent information in the kingdom) and posting videos on YouTube that garnered more than 30 million views last year. Abdulaziz is part of a small but influential group of Saudi dissidents, including figures such as Lujain al-Khatlul, an activist who was sentenced last month to nearly six years in prison for her work on women’s rights.
“I made this film about Omar and Lugain,” Vogel said. “I did it for all the people who are suffering because they are talking about freedom.” He says he hopes Abdulaziz’s unwavering stance will make other young people more active. He also wants to show that Khashoggi’s tale offers not just tragedy but heritage.
Abdulaziz began his career in the early 1920s, attracting attention with his compelling video posts in Arabic, criticizing Mohammed and the Saudi government; he fled to Canada when he learned that the Saudi authorities were looking for him. Abdulaziz will contact Khashoggi in a kind of marriage of additions: The senior journalist guides him with his inner knowledge of the kingdom; the youth activist contributed with his knowledge of social media and reaching out to young people in a country where over 40 percent of the population is under 25 years old.
The two created the “bees”, a sensible, low-budget social media initiative designed to fight Mohammed’s “flies” (essentially troll farms designed to keep disagreements out of sight).
In March 2018, with the rise of Abdulaziz’s profile, the Saudi government sent a prominent lawyer and talk show host to Montreal, forcing Abdulaziz’s brother to come for an extra lever. The men tried to persuade Abdulaziz to return to Saudi Arabia with promises of a talk show, Abdulaziz said, and then urged him to visit the Saudi embassy in Ottawa to “renew his passport.”
The activist consulted with Khashoggi, who told him it was dangerous to do one of these things. He advised him to refuse. Abdulaziz remained in his place, and the lawyer and the host returned to the kingdom. Abdulaziz Ahmed’s brother was subsequently arrested and imprisoned along with 23 of the dissident’s friends. Another brother was later arrested. Abdulaziz continued to tweet.
“I know they were brutally tortured and it hurts,” he said. “But I can’t stop.” Because if they use it as a card to stop me from publishing today, then tomorrow they will use it as a card to kill me. “
He paused. “All these threats just motivate me.”
“It’s a very precarious position he’s in – he’s very exposed,” Browder said in an interview. “The Saudis have all the resources in the world. And we know how they pursue their enemies. “
Browder, who is working pro bono to distribute the film in Washington, is believed to be under serious threat from Russian authorities for a campaign for anti-corruption laws based on sanctions known as “Magnitsky’s laws,” named after his lawyer, for who is said to have been killed by Russian authorities. Browder says he thinks Abdulaziz is in a difficult situation he knows well.
“The human body does not have the ability to live in fear full time; you get used to the risk and the adrenaline levels go down, ”he said. “You almost have to learn to be vigilant.”
While Mohammed said he was a reformer, the NGO Freedom House ranked Saudi Arabia seventh worst in terms of political rights and civil liberties among the world’s 49 countries considered “unfree,” noting “widespread surveillance” and “criminalization of disagreement. “
Abdulaziz says the censorship situation has worsened, especially with the flies sweeping the domestic internet.
“You can see their work everywhere. You will be on Twitter at 6 am and see messages about Selena Gomez, and then at 8 am for Weeknd, ”he said. “And then at 10 in the morning, it’s all about ‘MBS is the most beautiful person in the world’ from so many places, just to make sure everything looks great and no one hears any criticism.”
Abdulaziz says he believes a new White House administration could put more pressure on the regime on these issues. There are already signs that Mohammed will have more responsibility for Khashoggi, a pre-election promise by President-elect Joe Biden. And Saudi Arabia last week ended a protracted blockade of Qatar with an obvious gesture of reconciliation.
Experts are only slightly optimistic.
“A lot depends on how much internal will the new administration has to face to confront Saudi Arabia, and I don’t know that it does. “They will have their hands full with a new deal with Iran, and they don’t want the Saudis to make their lives worse,” said Hamid, a Brookings expert. “For anyone who expects significant change, unless there is serious pressure on the United States, I don’t think that will happen,” he said.
One way to increase global heat, he noted, would be The Dissident. This could be complicated internationally, as without a major streaming deal, the film has to be released through a cross-section of distributors and release dates in various countries, from Turkey to the United Kingdom (there are no current plans for Saudi Arabia). Chances are, says Vogel, the film will get a window to launch Amazon in the UK after its theatrical release there this spring. An Amazon UK spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Briarcliffe uses outdoor and online advertising to get people to rent the film on digital platforms.
“There is a lot of competition on demand. But you can also keep your film there for a long time, “Ortenberg said.
He said the Abdulaziz saga was the main reason he bought the film.
“Omar’s story is almost unknown in most of the world. That needs to change, “he said.
The activist said that he was not looking for attention, but only a chance to do his job without worrying about his family. He received a new warning from the RCMP just a few days ago – he asked not to reveal its specifics – and his brothers remain in prison for his tweets. He says he last communicated with his father in August, when messages to him began to return.
Abdulaziz believes his father is threatened with punishment if he talks to his son.
“It’s better that everyone doesn’t talk to me,” the activist said with a shrug, but a tear could be seen on the screen.
He said thinking about Khashoggi is one of the few things that makes the pain bearable.
“I hear Jamal’s voice.” I hear him say, “We need to send a message. Let’s free the bees. ”