Amnesty International called on the Premier League on Thursday to focus on human rights issues and "sportswashing" as Newcastle United's proposed sale to a consortium led by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) inched closer.
The PIF - chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - wants to buy Newcastle for a reported 305 million pounds (US$415 million), with media reports indicating the deal could be announced later on Thursday.
"Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football," said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International's UK chief executive.
Saudi Arabia's US$430 billion sovereign wealth fund PIF is at the centre of the kingdom's efforts to diversify its economy beyond oil.
The original Newcastle deal collapsed in July 2020 amid scrutiny from the Premier League, which came under pressure to stop the sale due to concerns over alleged broadcast piracy in Saudi Arabia.
The piracy dispute involved Qatari-owned beIN Sports, the Premier League's broadcast rights holder across the Middle East, which had been barred from operating in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia lifted that ban on Wednesday, clearing a major hurdle to the Newcastle deal. But concerns about the kingdom's human rights record remain.
"Instead of allowing those implicated in serious human rights violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets, we've urged the Premier League to change their owners' and directors' test to address human rights issues," Amnesty's Deshmukh said.
"The phrase 'human rights' doesn't even appear in the owners' and directors' test despite English football supposedly adhering to FIFA standards.
"We've sent the Premier League a suggested new human rights-compliant test and we reiterate our call on them to overhaul their standards on this."
The Premier League did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saudi Arabia's government denies allegations of human rights abuses and says it is protecting national security from extremists and external actors.
The BBC had earlier reported that PIF, which is providing 80per cent of the funding for the deal, would be treated as separate to the Saudi state under the ownership test, meaning concerns over piracy or human rights abuses should not affect the bid.
"The Premier League needs to better understand the dynamic of sportswashing and tighten its ownership rules," Deshmukh said.
Separately, Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, urged the Premier League not to approve the takeover.
Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, but his body has never been found. A U.S. intelligence report said the prince had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi.
The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince and rejected the report's findings.
"It is horrifying to learn that the Crown Prince is on the brink of getting what he wants: to wash his reputation, and sully the name of sports," she told the Daily Telegraph on Thursday.
"I urge the Premier League not to cave in now — this is the moment to show courage and principle. It will show the killers they cannot wash away their crimes."
(US$1 = 0.7356 pounds)
(Reporting by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Hugh Lawson)