Latest Update: 31 March 2013
There were several high profile events that were illustrative of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia between January and March.
In January there was international condemnation of the decision to execute Sri Lankan national Rizana Nafeek who was found guilty of killing a child in her care. Rizana, who was probably under 18 when the crime was committed, was executed despite a long campaign for clemency by the international community and the Sri Lankan government. The Saudi authorities believed her to have been over 18 because she had an apparently falsified date of birth on her passport. In mid-March the death penalty again aroused concern internationally with the execution of seven Saudi men sentenced for planning a series of armed robberies. At least one of the men was alleged to be a juvenile at the time and an unverified allegation was made by one of the detainees that his confession was extracted under torture. Alistair Burt, FCO Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, released statements on both occasions expressing concern about the executions and reiterating the HMG’s position on the death penalty. The Saudi Government has confirmed that 13 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in January and February, although the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested that the true figure may be as high as 27.
The trial of two prominent human rights activists, Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamad, also ended in March. Both men were found guilty of founding an unlicensed human rights organisation, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler and questioning the integrity of officials. Qahtani received ten years imprisonment, plus a ten year travel ban; Hamad received a total of eleven years imprisonment (five years plus an additional six years from a previous sentence commuted by the King in 2006) and a five year travel ban. We have previously raised this case with the Saudi Government, and continue to discuss our concerns about restrictions on NGOs operating in the Kingdom.
Although demonstrations are illegal, three small scale, non-violent but notable protests took place in January and February, two in Buraidah in the conservative Qassim Province and one in Riyadh. All three called for the release of relatives who had been detained for a number of years without charge, some as far back as 2004. Saudi security forces made 161 arrests, including 15 women and six children, for protesting outside the Buraidah Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution. All have since been released from custody.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia cleric arrested in July 2012 for calling for the overthrow of the Al Saud and inciting violence, attended his first court hearing in March with the Public Prosecutor calling for the death penalty. In a similar trial last December, Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer, also from the Eastern Province, was sentenced to three years in jail and a five year travel ban for incitement of public opinion and calling for political change by challenging the state and provoking citizens.
Better news was the appointment for the first time in February of 30 women to the Majlis Ash-Shura (Shura Council), one of the King’s advisory bodies. With women Shura members now representing 20% of the Council, this is a significant and symbolic reform highlighting the steady progress Saudi Arabia is making on women’s rights. The Foreign Secretary was the first foreign government minister to meet some of the women Shura members when they came to the UK in February as part of a visit organised by Parliament. The delegation had an extensive programme of engagements at Parliament, including calls on the Leaders of both Houses, the Speakers, parliamentarians and the Lord Chief Justice, to discuss a range of issues including human rights and reform. The Shura Council in turn hosted a visit for some members of the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) who visited in March. The FAC also met the Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice where they raised the death penalty, women’s rights, freedom of religion and expression and migrant worker rights and heard first hand about the reforms being made.
In a further development in March, the Shura Council accepted a 3000 signature petition which may lead to a debate on the issue of permitting women to drive.