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Families of Saudi Arabian prisoners of conscience have begged Lionel Messi not to be “used” by the country’s regime to “launder its reputation”, after the Barcelona star has reportedly received an offer to become the face of the kingdom’s tourist board.
‘Visit Saudi’ are currently on a publicity drive, and have been seeking high-profile stars to endorse their campaign, with Messi reportedly being the prime target.
A decision over what would be a multi-million pound contract is expected in the next month, and that has prompted family members of prisoners of conscience to write an open letter imploring the Argentine great to “say no” and “stand up to those who trample on others”.
The letter, organised by human rights advocacy body, Grant Liberty, reads: “You are an inspiration to millions and what you say and do really matters. To put it bluntly – you have enormous power, but with that power comes great responsibility.
“The Saudi regime wants to use you to launder its reputation. Prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia have been tortured, sexually assaulted, and held in prolonged solitary confinement – often for months at a time – on an industrial scale.”
It is pointed out to Messi that acceptance of the offer would represent the use of his status to soften Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
“Women’s rights campaigners, reformist preachers, Shia activists, democracy campaigners, indeed anyone who criticises or even questions the regime can face long-term imprisonment and in some cases the death penalty.
“If you say ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi you are in effect saying yes to all the human rights abuses that take place today in modern Saudi Arabia. But if you say ‘no’ you will send an equally powerful message – that human rights matter, that decency matters, that those who torture and murder do not do so with impunity. The world must stand up to those who trample on others.
“Lionel Messi, you are a hero to millions – please use that status for good. Stand up for human rights and say no to the butchers of Jamal Khashoggi and the brutalisers of peaceful campaigners in Saudi Arabia.”
The reported offer comes amid a wider campaign from Saudi Arabia to boost its international reputation, and move into sport. The 2020 attempt to buy Newcastle United, through the country’s Public Investment Fund, met with a similar response from the family members, Grant Liberty and other human rights campaigners.
Signatories include Lina al-Hathloul, sister of Loujain al-Hathloul, arrested for her peaceful campaign for women’s right to drive and an end to the guardianship law. Earlier this month Loujain was released from prison after spending three years behind bars.
Other signatories include Abdullah Alaoudh, son of Salman al-Odah, a religious reformer who potentially faces the death penalty over attempts address human rights abuses; Abdullah al-Ghamidi, son of Aida al-Ghamidi, who is believed to have been arrested - and suffered torture - with her two sons over their relationship with a prominent opposition figure; Areej al-Sadhan sister of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, arrested and tortured apparently for voicing peaceful opinions on social media.
Grant Liberty spokesperson Lucy Rae said: “Torture and tourism don’t mix.”
Ms Rae said the Saudi regime is attempting to “launder its reputation while in truth it imprisons and tortures human rights activists on an industrial scale.
“If Saudi Arabia wants to show the world it has changed it needs to begin real reform, and end the abuse of peaceful activists. Until it does that, its Visit Saudi campaigns will be written in the blood of those they have brutalised.”
The Independent has approached representatives for Messi and Saudi Arabia for comment.