BERGEN/OSLO (Dagbladet): She is the festival director of the Bergen International Literary Festival (LitFestBergen). One of the highlights of the 2019 festival was scheduled for that afternoon.
Four months had passed since the assassination of journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, carried out by agents of the Saudi Arabian government in Istanbul. Participants at the festival included female artists from two authoritarian regimes who were scheduled to discuss how they managed to practice their craft in two oppressive countries – one of which was Saudi Arabia.
Two artists were on the programme.
Only one turned up.
The drama that ensued in Bergen has been kept a secret for nearly two years. Dagbladet has now confirmed the incident from several sources.
After she was contacted by Dagbladet, Festival Director Grøtan decided to speak openly about this serious incident involving high-level Saudi politics on Norwegian soil.
For the artist's own safety, Dagbladet has chosen not to identify her by name. She has become well-known, partly because she dares to criticize the role of religious authorities in Saudi Arabia through her art. The artist was present on the opening day of the festival and was scheduled to participate in two new panel discussions. The next day, however, she was nowhere to be found.
- What happened was that she failed to appear for her first stage discussion. We were concerned when she didn’t turn up, says Teresa Grøtan to Dagbladet.
- At first, I couldn’t reach her on the phone. Then she said she would come, but that she had gotten lost. I asked her to tell me where she was, and I said I would come and pick her up. Then she didn’t answer her phone and turned her phone off. We realised something was wrong and contacted the police, who began searching for her.
Dagbladet has recently revealed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervened when Saudi Arabia requested that Norway regdiplomatic immunity to a security team of ten men, who work for the oil-rich Kingdom's embassy in Oslo. Both the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and PST (the Norwegian Police Security Service) were involved in the case. It ended with Norway refusing to grant diplomat status to nine of the ten security people.
The Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) connected the incident with Iyad el-Baghdadi, a known Saudi dissident, and a friend of the assassinated Jamal Khashoggi. He currently resides at an unknown address in Norway.
Dagbladet can now reveal what happened when one of Saudi Arabia's most controversial artists was scheduled to talk from a stage in the largest city of Western Norway.
The Saudi Arabia Embassy in Oslo has not responded to Dagbladet's questions on this matter.
- Came to the door
Several sources Dagbladet has spoken with have confirmed that the artist was visited by individuals from the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Oslo. Dagbladet has learned the identity of one of the Saudi representatives.
She holds a senior position at the Embassy.
According to the festival director, Embassy personnel arrived so early on Friday, that they likely started driving just after the artist had participated in the official opening, making a journey across the mountains during the night.
- I was told she had been visited at the hotel and threatened by representatives of the Saudi Arabia Embassy, Grøtan told Dagbladet.
- They had gone to her hotel, threatened her, told her not to participate, and instead return home to Saudi Arabia.
- Did you notice anything?
- She did ask for her fee in cash – but I had no idea why. She also left her mobile phone behind before returning to Saudi Arabia.
Investigation by Norwegian Police Security Service (PST)
The Western Norway Police District in Bergen have confirmed, in a statement to Dagbladet, that they participated in the search for the artist. In an email to Dagbladet, Communication Consultant Gry Benedicte Halseth from Western Norway Police District responded as follows:
- The police log is exempt from public disclosure, so we cannot give you that. We can confirm that the management of the literary festival contacted the police, and that we had contact with the organiser and the hotel where the lecturer stayed, until she returned to the hotel just two hours after police were alerted. Any questions about the investigation must be directed to the central PST office.
Norwegian Police Security Service has declined to comment on this specific case. However, Senior Advisor Martin Bernsen with PST told Dagbladet:
- I do not wish to go into detail on what we may have initiated in terms of operative and preventive measures in this case. Generally, the activity Dagbladet describes is related to what we refer to as refugee espionage. The purpose of this type of activity is to undermine, neutralise or eliminate political opposition. There are several countries involved in refugee espionage here in Norway. Threatening people who are living in Norway, or their families in their native countries, is a common procedure. Refugee espionage is something PST has worked to prevent and investigate. There are few known examples, since these cases are often difficult to prosecute, and we assume that there are many unrecorded cases.
According to Teresa Grøtan, PST has conducted several interrogations in the case.
- There were quite a few people here who were questioned by PST. They said they were taking this very seriously and had brought it up to the highest level, says the festival director.
- This was also just after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Just a few months since Khashoggi. It's incredible that this is even possible.
Following this episode, Teresa Grøtan has been contacted by several representatives from Saudi authorities.
In November, she was contacted by a representative from the Ministry of Culture in Riyadh, with a request to participate at the festival.
Dagbladet has viewed the request and confirmed with public sources that the sender works for Saudi authorities.
Dagbladet has attempted to contact the artist through others who know her. One acquaintance of the artist stated that she is supposedly fine, but that it has been a year since they spoke with her. It has not been possible to contact the artist herself.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy has not responded to questions from Dagbladet.