Is this the end for GNRD?

Arrested: GNRD's founder/president Loai Deeb

Last February, a few months after I began investigating the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), the Norwegian-based organisation issued a press release urging people to take no notice of what I was writing.

"After carefully examining all the claims made by Mr Brian Whitaker in his articles, GNRD have found that the allegations are often false and misleading and therefore GNRD is in the process of opening a legal case," it said. "Mr Whitaker’s relentless campaign against GNRD is defamatory in nature, gratuitously malicious and tantamount to criminal harassment."

I never heard from GNRD's lawyers but a few days later something else happened. There were repeated attempts to hack my social media accounts and a vicious campaign of online harassment began which lasted for more than a month. Hundreds of fake Twitter accounts posted defamatory tweets about me – fake accounts which were also being used to promote the activities of GNRD's founder and president, Loai Deeb.

They accused me of being in the pay of the Qatari government (to the tune of $50,000 a year), and of evading tax. They claimed I had been expelled from Yemen for a sexual offence. A video was posted on YouTube – purportedly the voice of a young Yemeni man who claimed I had been in Yemen during the uprising against President Saleh and had induced him to have sex with me by offering him money and employment in Qatar. Fact: my last visit to Yemen was in 2000, at the time the USS Cole was blown up.

The GNRD file 
Read the full story here

More amusingly, they latched on to a blog post I had written criticising Sheikha Moza, the wife of Qatar's former emir, for supporting organisations which try to "cure" homosexuality. My attackers completely misunderstood the article and, mistakenly believing it praised Sheikha Moza, began citing it as evidence that I was employed by the Qatari government.

The fact that these attacks were coming from (let's say) supporters of an alleged human rights NGO naturally increased my suspicions about the true nature of GNRD. I also felt it was important to continue investigating and writing about GNRD because calling a halt at that point would have sent the wrong signal. (Readers who are unfamiliar with the story can find out about it here, where my blog posts have been compiled into a single file.)

A startling development

The questions I was asking about GNRD aroused some interest among human rights activists but not among the mainstream media – at least until yesterday when Norwegian news organisations reported a startling development: Loai Deeb had been arrested. He and GNRD are under investigation in Norway on suspicion of laundering money and handling stolen property. The amount involved is said to be US $13 million and, according to the reports, there is a financial connection with the United Arab Emirates.

The Norwegian reports say Deeb was arrested at his home on 27 May, questioned for 48 hours, charged with money laundering and released. He then returned to work and tweeted about the need for medicines to be sent to Yemen.

News of his arrest coincided with the publication of a lengthy article by Lars Backe Madsen in Dagens Næringsliv about the mysterious background of "Doctor" Deeb – a title which he apparently insists on all his staff using when they address him. Among other things, the article questions whether he actually has a doctorate. He claims to have a BA, an MA and a PhD in international law but refuses to say where he studied for them.

A strange organisation

Like most people, including genuine human rights activists, I had never heard of GNRD until last September when two men working for the organisation were arrested in Qatar. They were said to have been investigating the ill-treatment of Nepalese migrant workers there.

Their detention by the Qatari authorities was obviously unfair but I received several messages from contacts saying there was more to the story than met the eye, and it would be worth looking deeper. They suggested GNRD was a front organisation for the United Arab Emirates and that the arrested men had been caught up in a political spat between the UAE and Qatar.

Although I found no evidence that GNRD was funded directly by the UAE government, it clearly had plenty of Emirati connections. GNRD has an office there, while Deeb himself has relatives and business interests there. A trawl through GNRD's website showed it had a remarkably sympathetic view of the UAE's human rights practices – unlike Human Rights Watch and the US State Department, both of which have been highly critical. Although abuse of migrant workers is widespread in the Gulf states, the website trawl also showed Qatar was the only country that GNRD seemed eager to criticise for it.

The story then took an intriguing turn with the discovery that before he founded GNRD Deeb had set up a fake university – the Scandinavian University – at his home in Stavanger. It eventually closed down under the threat of legal action by the Norwegian authorities. 

Although the story of Deeb's fake university is easily found in Norwegian newspaper archives, GNRD's February press release claimed I had got it all wrong. Supposedly I had confused the Scandinavian University with the Scandinavian Institute for Human Rights – one of numerous impressive-sounding but obscure organisations Deeb has been associated with over the years.

While writing and reporting about the Middle East I have had lots of contact with NGOs, both large and small, but almost as soon as I started looking at GNRD I began to have doubts. Much as it tried to appear like a normal NGO, there was too much about it that didn't feel right.

As I continued looking into GNRD's affairs, the words "fake" and "Deeb" continued to be paired together. Besides the use of fake Twitter accounts for publicity purposes, Deeb's own Twitter account has an unbelievable 1,842,383 followers – achieved, apparently, on the basis of just 708 tweets. A YouTube video of a speech he gave (in Arabic) last February has purportedly been viewed 1,185,984 which, as Madsen points out in his article, is only slightly less than the 1.4 million views achieved by Barack Obama with this year's State of the Union address.

Deeb is an extraordinary self-publicist, as can been seen from his 
Wikipedia entry which is flagged with a note saying:

"This article has multiple issues ... This article contains content that is written like an advertisement [... and] needs additional citations for verification. This article is an autobiography or has been extensively edited by the subject or an institution related to the subject."

GNRD's activities

But what does GNRD actually do? Its website gives the impression of a busy and active organisation. There are lots of photographs of Loai Deeb looking important and signing agreements with other organisations. Much of the activity reported on the website is quite bland and uncontroversial – like its current campaign on children's "Right to Play" – and rarely involves anything but the mildest criticism of governments.

A lot of the "news" on GNRD's website is about meetings hosted by other organisations which GNRD staff have attended, while other reports are about meetings held by GNRD, often on the sidelines of UN or European Parliament activities.

One recent news item says GNRD helped in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake but is rather vague about it. It says GNRD helped with collecting and distributing relief materials, but there is nothing to indicate the scale or extent of this help. 

During the last few years GNRD has sent observer missions to elections in Algeria, Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the independence referendum in South Sudan, and published reports about them. The report on Sisi's election to the Egyptian presidency was surprisingly enthusiastic.

Last November it flew various Yemeni political figures to Brussels for a conference which Deeb hailed as "a real opportunity to achieve an all-inclusive national reconciliation". Needless to say (especially since the UN had been trying for months to achieve the same thing), it failed and, as I wrote at the time, it was difficult to see any purpose in the Brussels conference beyond GNRD's self-aggrandisement.

Another GNRD campaign involves posting photos on Twitter of people holding placards that say "#ActAgainstTerrrorism" (a sentiment few would disagree with). This follows on from a GNRD conference on counterterrorism in February which was attended by 200 people and held in one of Geneva's most expensive hotels. Attendees at the conference were presented with a 34-page draft of an international convention on counterterrorism which had been produced by GNRD.

GNRD had been working on the draft for more than a year and has clearly invested a lot of effort and money in producing it. There seems to be some kind of political motive behind this, but as yet I'm not sure what it is.

One frequent comment from those who have contact with GNRD is that it doesn't seem to be short of money. Apart from the lavish conferences, it is said to employ more than 100 staff worldwide. Earlier this month it announced the opening of a London office and has also been advertising for a researcher/representative to be based in New York (at a salary of $60,000 a year).

Several of GNRD's staff are registered for lobbying purposes at the European Parliament in Brussels. In February this year, after several years of trying, GNRD was granted consultative status at the United Nations, mainly at the behest of Sudan, which "highlighted the excellent work of the organisation" according to 
a report of the meeting (page 21). This was not without controversy, however: the US sought to delay a vote on the grounds that GNRD "was promulgating false information on its website about the participation of the United States in one of its events". Nevertheless, the vote went ahead with Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Guinea, India, Iran, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Uruguay, Venezuela supporting GNRD's acceptance and only the US and Israel opposing it.

The end?The exact nature of the money-laundering charges remains to be seen; details will no doubt emerge as the case progresses. But regardless of what happens on the legal front, it is difficult to see how GNRD can survive. Whatever credibility it might have had has already been destroyed by the man who created it. 
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 13 June 2015