By David Charlesworth, PA
Amnesty International has hit out at the possibility of Saudi Arabia staging the world heavyweight title rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua.
Usyk outpointed Joshua at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last September to claim the WBA, IBF and WBO belts and the Ukrainian’s promoter Alexander Krassyuk disclosed a return bout could occur in late June.
While an outdoor stadium in London was thought to be the preferred option, Krassyuk told BBC Sport “discussions” are taking place with officials from Saudi Arabia, which continues to face heavy scrutiny over its human rights record.
Joshua was criticised for fighting there when he regained his world titles by defeating Andy Ruiz Jr in December 2019, with Saudi Arabia accused of attempting to ‘sportswash’ its international reputation.
Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s Economic Affairs Director, told the PA news agency: “If these early discussions result in yet another high-profile fight in Saudi Arabia then it will prove once again that Saudi Arabia’s enormous appetite for sportswashing is nowhere near sated yet.”
Formula One went back to Jeddah last weekend following the Gulf Kingdom’s debut appearance in the sport in December but Lewis Hamilton admitted to feeling uncomfortable given the human rights issues there.
Last Friday, human rights group Reprieve said a further 16 people have been killed since the mass execution on March 12 of 81 men, more than half of whom had taken part in pro-democracy protests, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
A Saudi-led coalition’s military conflict in neighbouring Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey have also been strongly condemned.
Frankental added: “Saudi Arabia’s human rights record remains dire – with dissent severely punished, human rights defenders persecuted and jailed, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen conducting a terrifying campaign of airstrikes which have repeatedly killed civilians.
“After the Saudi authorities shockingly executed 81 people in a single day earlier this month, it’s likely that Riyadh will see the glitz and raw hype of a Joshua-Usyk bout as a useful exercise in sportswashing that could help lessen any outrage over the executions.
“If this fight goes ahead, we’d like Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk and their respective teams to approach it with a genuine preparedness to speak out about human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and challenge the pernicious effect of big-money sportswashing.”
Another fight between Joshua and Usyk was pencilled in for the spring, but that was put on hold as the latter returned to Ukraine to enlist in the military amid Russia’s invasion.
However, last week he signalled his intention to begin training for the rematch.
“Saudi is the place we are in discussions with at the moment,” Krassyuk told the BBC. “Late June is the date we are looking at. Nothing has been confirmed on paper. We are working on it.
“There are other options, but we take it step by step.”