Key areas of concern to the UK in Saudi Arabia include restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in the Eastern Province and elsewhere in the country, the continued use of the death penalty (where the number of executions remains close to the 2011 figures), restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, discrimination against women, and a justice system which still falls short of international standards. The year saw a number of localised protests and demonstrations in the Eastern Province, primarily among the Shia community. Protests intensified in the second half of the year and turned violent following the arrest of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in July for remarks about the security forces and members of the Royal Family. More positively, we have seen some modest improvements in women’s rights, including the first ever participation of female Saudi athletes in the Olympics at London 2012. We welcomed the appointment of a new head of the Commission for Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which led to more open and moderate exercise of its powers. There has also been further reform of the justice system with increased judicial training, better technology and media access to trials. We also expect to see some reforms in the status of migrant workers, with a set of proposals currently being reviewed by the Council of Ministers.
In recognition of our assessment that it will be some time before the abolition of the death penalty is a realistic possibility, we pressed for the application of EU minimum standards for capital punishment. The Saudi Justice Minister agreed to further discussion on execution methods following his meeting with Baroness Warsi in April, and the President of the National Society for Human Rights, Dr Mufleh al-Qahtani, agreed to raise with the Saudi Arabian government the request by the FCO Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Alistair Burt, for the cessation of public executions on the grounds that they were not prescribed in the Koran.
We sought to increase our understanding of the cultural sensitivities surrounding women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia and to support reforms. The British Embassy in Riyadh supported Saudi female participation at the London Olympics to which some conservative sections of Saudi society were opposed.
We also responded to allegations of torture. We promoted the benefits of greater transparency and accountability in the Saudi Arabian justice system. A visit to the UK by the Saudi Justice Minister in April for discussions with ministers, parliamentarians and judges, included a visit to the Old Bailey and Belmarsh Prison to demonstrate the value of an open and transparent justice system.
We pressed, too, for greater religious freedom in Saudi society. Ministers lobbied for greater access for expatriates to public facilities for worship. But while people are allowed to practise their faith in private, it is likely to be some time before Saudi society is ready openly to accept the public practice of other religions within Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, we expect there to be continued progress on rights for women and migrant workers, and continuing reforms to parts of the justice system. We expect localised unrest to persist in the Eastern Province with associated restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Human rights defenders and civil society organisations will continue to find it difficult to operate in Saudi Arabia, the death penalty will remain in place and we will probably hear more reports of long detentions without trial and allegations of torture. Child marriage is still likely to occur and the restrictions on freedom of religion and belief will remain. Our objectives will be to support efforts to increase political participation by reinforcing the authorities’ endeavours to give citizens a meaningful stake in the governance of their country, to encourage increased transparency, accountability and effectiveness of Saudi institutions by supporting reforms to the criminal justice system, encouraging the rule of law and reducing corruption and to promote freedom and fairness in Saudi society by pushing for greater equality and work to reduce discrimination on the grounds of gender, nationality, religion and belief.
Political participation in Saudi Arabia is limited. Municipal council elections were last held in September 2011. Shortly afterwards, the King issued a decree enabling women to participate on the next occasion in 2015. This is a significant development. The UK will continue to encourage and support further reforms, including measures currently under consideration, to increase the authority of the municipal councils.
Freedom of expression and assembly
Public protest is illegal in Saudi Arabia, although we have seen a number of demonstrations recently in both Eastern Province and other areas of the country. Several people were killed on both sides when demonstrations turned violent between members of the Shia community and the security forces in the Eastern Province. Independent and reliable sources are limited and British Embassy officials do not have unrestricted access to the Eastern Province and those involved in the unrest. However, our assessment of the information available is that the Saudi response has been proportionate thus far.
Social media continue to provide the main forum for debate in Saudi Arabia. They are not generally a tool for activism on the street, however, and are in the main uncensored, if not unmonitored. The Saudi Justice Minister, Dr Mohammed bin Abdulkareem al-Issa, publicly said in April that he welcomed diverse views, but not hate speech. However, he also warned that people who express views that undermine national unity and create political upheaval will be dealt with according to Islamic Law. The Saudi Arabian government has a restrictive policy for freedom of expression online where it concerns Islam. Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old Saudi national, was arrested and detained on 12 February following comments he made on Twitter about the Prophet Mohammed.
The Prime Minister and our Ambassador have raised the issue of unrest in the Eastern Province with the Saudi Arabian government. When the Prime Minister discussed the matter with the late Crown Prince Nayif during his visit in January, he acknowledged the restraint shown by the security forces in managing demonstrations. In addition, the various British military teams delivering training to the Ministry of Interior and the Saudi Arabian National Guard cover human rights issues, stressing the need to respect international standards of law enforcement and helping to maintain stability on the ground.
Human rights defenders
Several human rights defenders came to the attention of the Saudi authorities and the media in 2012. Mohammed al-Bajadi was charged with forming an unlicensed human rights association, damaging Saudi Arabia’s reputation, questioning the independence of the judiciary, encouraging demonstrations and owning illegal books. He was jailed for four years, with a subsequent five-year travel ban. It is alleged that he was denied legal representation during his trial. He went on hunger strike while in detention. Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, are currently on trial for undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler and operating an unlicensed human rights organisation. Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia have also reportedly been prevented from leaving the country to participate in conferences on human rights. Some have asked that the UK does not involve itself in their activities because they believe it undermines their credibility in the country.
Access to justice and the rule of law
Court proceedings in Saudi Arabia do not comply with international standards. There are signs, however, that trials are becoming more transparent and access is now given to media for some trials. Efforts to reform the justice system continue with the approval of a new central training institute for the judiciary. Changes have also been made to the organisational structure of the system, new court houses are being built and better IT is being installed. Nevertheless, the legal system remains Sharia-based and suffers from delays in bringing defendants to court in a timely manner, with reports of many individuals detained for years without trial. There are no public inquiries, inquests into unnatural deaths, or mechanisms for oversight of the judiciary. We will be aiming for closer cooperation on justice matters in 2013.
There were 75 executions in 2012, a similar figure to 2011. Saudi Arabia is one of only four countries that carry out executions in public by beheading (the others are Iran, North Korea and Somalia). The principle of the death penalty remains enshrined in Saudi Sharia Law. The Saudi authorities’ position remains governed by an adherence to their understanding of the Law and there appears to be no prospect of imminent abolition. But the Saudi Arabian government, including the King, regularly encourage families to show clemency by waiving their right to have the killer of a relative executed. We lobbied the Saudi Arabian government bilaterally and through the EU for clemency on behalf of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid convicted of murdering a four-month-old baby under her care in 2005, allegedly at the age of 17. Miss Nafeek was later executed on 9 January 2013. Mr Burt, the FCO Minister with responsibility for Saudi Arabia, condemned the execution as cruel and inhuman. We will continue in 2013 to press for an application of EU minimum standards on the death penalty.
Allegations of torture continued to be heard, in particular from political activists accused of terrorist offences. Protesters outside the Saudi Human Rights Commission in Riyadh in September called for the release of jailed relatives, alleging that they were being tortured. We judge the allegations, by virtue of their frequency and the variety of sources, to be credible and it would appear that the Saudi authorities attach some credence to the allegations, because the Public Prosecution Office, part of the Ministry of Interior, has been ordered to monitor and inspect prisons. Dr Mufleh al-Qahtani, President of the National Society of Human Rights, told Mr Burt that he and representatives had visited prisons, including some in the Eastern Province, with the approval of the Ministry of Interior, and found no evidence of torture. The Ministry of Interior’s Modernisation Programme, which aims to embed better human rights and governance structures across the Ministry and subsidiary bodies, is an opportunity to make progress on this issue. Despite the efforts made to date by the government to address concerns about torture, more needs to be done. The creation of a truly independent body which reports on conditions for, and treatment of, those in prison and other detention facilities would be a significant step towards increasing transparency and accountability in the prison system.
Freedom of religion or belief
Freedom of religion or belief is severely restricted in Saudi Arabia. The public practice of faith by non-Muslims is strictly prohibited. The Grand Mufti’s comment early in the year that all churches on the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed demonstrated the strength of feeling in some quarters regarding reform on this issue, although his view is not the official policy of the Saudi Arabian government. Shia Muslims, who make up about 10% of the population (and 30% of the population in the Eastern Province), are also subject to discrimination because civic and religious freedoms, such as the building of mosques, are restricted. Mr Burt raised concerns about freedom of religion and belief, particularly for migrant workers, with Dr Mufleh al-Qahtani, President of the National Society of Human Rights, when he visited Riyadh in May. Dr al-Qahtani said that foreign workers were free to practise their religion in their own homes or compounds, but the time was not right to push for more freedoms: Saudi society was not yet ready to accept religions other than Islam in the Kingdom. A positive development was the reform of the Commission for Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Religious Police) under its new head, Sheikh Abdulatif al-Sheikh. In November, he announced new limitations on the commission’s power removing its authority to arrest, conduct interrogations and attend court hearings. We will continue to discuss the options for increasing freedom of religion in 2013.
Saudi Arabia was ranked 131st out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2012. The index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education and health criteria, and provides country rankings that allow for effective comparisons across regions and income groups. The rights of women in Saudi Arabia are principally governed by a guardianship system under which women’s freedom to participate in society is severely restricted. This year a number of reforms were implemented. The government is committed to expanding employment opportunities for women, and the number of women in work rose in 2012. The requirements for a woman to have the consent of her guardian to take up employment and to have a representative to conduct business were also removed, but these advances were offset by a decree by the Labour Ministry reinstating strict gender segregation provisions which had been removed when the Labour Law was changed in 2005. Women were given freedom of movement within the Gulf Cooperation Council States for the first time in 2012, although there were credible reports that guardians were automatically being text-messaged whenever female dependents left the country. The text alerts form part of the e-Border system introduced by the Saudi authorities last year and had previously been received only if a male guardian opted into the scheme.
UK ministers and officials engaged with their Saudi counterparts on women’s rights on a number of occasions, most visibly during the Prime Minister’s visit to Jeddah in November. There he met a group of female students who took the view that cultural sensitivities about gender should continue to be respected because they were confident that gradual progress was being made towards liberalisation. This may be true. However, some of the negative comments on Twitter about the meeting, including suggestions that the women meeting the Prime Minister had brought shame to their families, that his visit was immoral, and that this was the beginning of a Saudi red-light district, suggest that the road to reform will continue to be challenging.
There are an estimated eight million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are treated poorly and given limited rights. A sponsorship system governs work contracts, salary, visas, vacations and repatriation for foreign workers. It is common for passports to be confiscated by employers, restricting free movement. A large proportion of migrant workers are non-Muslims and their right to practise their religion is severely constrained. We are also concerned about the announcement on 10 December by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs banning expatriate organisations and associations on the grounds that they “violated the rules and objectives of diplomatic missions”. The Saudi authorities recognise that many foreign workers are the victims of extortion by their sponsors. The National Society of Human Rights’ set of proposals for reform of the sponsorship system is currently awaiting consideration by the Council of Ministers.
There is no age of legal responsibility in Saudi Arabia. Adulthood is deemed to begin at the onset of puberty. This has implications for the trials of children as adults, including for crimes which carry the death penalty. It also gives legitimacy to the concept of child marriage, which, based on anecdotal evidence, is fairly common. We await a decision from the Ministry of Justice to put legislation before the Cabinet on this. In May 2011, the Shura Council voted, in a non-binding resolution, for a minimum age for girls to marry at 17.