Latest Update: 31 December 2013
Saudi Arabia undertook its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council at the UN in October. Full documentation is available on the UN website. The UK submitted advance questions and made a statement at the UPR. In our statement we expressed our disappointment that Saudi Arabia had not fulfilled all the recommendations it accepted under the last UPR in 2009 and our hope that these will be given priority. In particular we called for the abolition of the guardianship system for women, and for the Saudi government to codify its criminal law to bring it into line with international law. In November Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and will sit on the HRC for the period of 2014-2016. Saudi Arabia’s election pledges included commitments to strengthen their institutional framework for human rights; to work closely with UN agencies to build national capacity and identify additional ways of protecting and promoting human rights; and offered a $1m increase in funding for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights over a five year period.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Justice, Dr Mohammed Al Issa, visited the UK in December 2013, following up on his visit of March 2012. During his visit, Dr Al Issa had detailed discussions about judicial reform in Saudi Arabia with a number of legal authorities and practitioners. Dr Al Issa met Minister for Human Rights Baroness Warsi on 18 December. They discussed future reform of the Saudi judicial system, women’s rights, particularly the right to drive campaign, trials and access, and freedom of association. Baroness Warsi also encouraged the Minister to improve the situation for NGOs operating in the Kingdom and allow access by the international NGO community.
In October 2013 a prominent campaign advocating the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia, “Women2Drive”, attracted significant international attention, calling for women to drive in protest on 26 October. In the lead-up to this date, over 17,000 people signed an online petition of support and more than 100 women drove, posting footage on the campaign website. The Ministry of Interior released a strong statement warning against such action. On 26 October a small number of women drove vehicles throughout the country. Police confirmed that 14 women drivers had been stopped (five in Riyadh, six in the Eastern Province, two in Jeddah and one in Abha). All were released on the same day after promising not to drive again. Journalist Tariq Al Mubarak was detained for eight days after supporting the campaign before being released on 3 November. In a meeting with the British Embassy on 3 November, the Human Rights Commission confirmed that there were no further detentions in relation to this campaign. On 31 October the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Hugh Robertson, raised the issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia with Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the UK.
The amnesty for illegal workers to regularise their status or leave the country, initially announced in April 2013, expired on 4 November. The Saudi authorities instigated a massive campaign to identify and deport illegal migrants. Press reporting indicates that around five million foreign workers had either corrected their labour status or departed the Kingdom since the policy was announced. The Saudi government has not issued clear statistics, but reports indicate that up to 140,000 people have been arrested, with around 120,000 of those deported forcibly to their country of origin. Reports indicate that five people, of both Saudi and other nationalities, were killed in localised incidents as the police sought to inspect and clear sites.
On 16 December the Council of Ministers passed a draft law on counter-terrorism and terrorist financing to the King for ratification. The draft law defines terrorist crime as ‘any act committed individually or collectively, directly or indirectly, aimed at disturbing public order or undermining state security or stability … defaming the state or its status…or inciting any action that may lead to the aforementioned goals’. Civil society groups have expressed their concern that the current drafting could be used to target legitimate and peaceful activities and political expression.
We continue to monitor the situation in Eastern Province closely. Recent anecdotal evidence suggests that the level of unrest has dropped considerably, although there are still occasional demonstrations.
The trial of Fadel al-Manasef, founding member of the Adala Centre for Human Rights, continues. An Embassy official attended a hearing on 27 November when the hearing was adjourned pending further evidence. On 29 October Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for criticising the judiciary. He is currently appealing against his sentence.
While no official figures are published, reports indicate 74 people had been executed by the end of December. Those executed were mainly convicted of murder, armed robbery and drugs-related offences. In recognition of our assessment that it will be some time before the abolition of the death penalty is a realistic possibility, we continue to press for the application of EU minimum standards for capital punishment.
Update: 30 September 2013
There has been no significant change in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia between July and September. Concerns about the treatment of human rights defenders and freedom of expression were particularly prominent. One of the founding members of ACPRA (the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Arabia), Mohammed al-Bejady, was released from prison briefly and without notice on 6 August to spend time with his family for Eid al-Fitr. Several days later he was recalled to prison where he remains and where he has been detained since he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in April 2012. It is alleged that he has spent most of that time in solitary confinement and is reportedly now on hunger strike.
In July, the founder of a liberal internet forum, Raif al-Badawi, was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for online posts critical of the religious authorities; the forum has also been closed down. On 11 September, our Deputy Head of Mission in Riyadh raised his case with Zaid al-Hussein, Deputy Chair of the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC). Mr al-Hussein said that members of the HRC had visited al-Badawi and confirmed he was in good health and being well treated, but that his case (currently under appeal) was a matter of national security and was now an issue for the judicial system.
In July, a legal challenge to the decision by the Ministry of Social Affairs to deny a license to the Adala Centre for Human Rights failed. The trial of Fadel al-Manasef, founding member of the Adala Centre for Human Rights, continues. Saudi Arabia recently introduced a law requiring all NGOs to go through a registration process in order to operate; to date, no fully independent organisation working on human rights has registered successfully.
There was some good news for low-skilled migrant workers in July when an amnesty giving illegal workers the opportunity to regularise their status or leave the country was extended until 4 November. In September, the government announced new rules to protect the rights of foreign domestic workers by requiring employers to pay salaries on time and to give them at least one day’s rest per week. They will also be entitled to paid sick leave and holiday pay. In addition, the government is introducing an electronic pay system requiring private sector employers to pay the salaries of foreign migrant workers into bank accounts. The aim is to ensure the timely payment of salaries and to protect workers’ rights.
The Council of Ministers approved legislation outlawing domestic abuse in August, the full text of which has now been published online. While it is unlikely to acknowledge the harmful effect of the guardianship system on women’s rights, the law introduces new measures for the prosecution of those accused of domestic violence and the protection of victims. The implementation of this law in practice will be crucial.
The number of executions continued to rise this year: 66 people had been beheaded by the end of September. These were mainly for murder, armed robbery and drugs related offences.
Update: 30 June 2013
There was no significant change in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia between April and June. On 17 April, the Deputy Head of Mission at our Embassy in Riyadh discussed with the Deputy Chairman of the Saudi Human Rights Commission the section on Saudi Arabia in the FCO’s Annual Human Rights Report 2012. Among other matters, the discussion covered the death penalty, freedom of expression and assembly, the rights of migrant workers and security operations in the Eastern Province. The head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department, Louise de Sousa, visited Saudi Arabia in May. She met with His Highness Dr Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kebir, the minister responsible for human rights at the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ms de Sousa also met members of the Majlis Ash-Shura’s Human Rights Committee, the National Society for Human Rights; and the Human Rights Commission. It was encouraging to hear about the national human rights plan and we encouraged the Shura’s Human Rights Committee to consider visiting Parliament to discuss the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the UK.
The case of Mr Ali al Khawaher, was highlighted in April. In 2003, Mr al-Khawaher, who was 14 at the time, stabbed his 16 year old neighbour in the neck leaving him paralysed from the waist down, brain damaged and requiring one foot to be amputated. Mr al-Khawaher was initially sentenced to surgical paralysis at the request of the victim’s family. The FCO expressed deep concern and urged the authorities to ensure the punishment was not carried out. The Saudi authorities subsequently confirmed that the paralysis sentence would not be carried out and that al Khawaher would be released on the payment of one million Saudi Riyals. It was reported in the Saudi press that Mr al Khawaher had been released from prison, following a campaign by local businessmen to raise the necessary money.
Freedom of assembly and access to justice were also highlighted during this period. In April, influential Saudi cleric, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, wrote an open letter to the government calling for reforms and the fair treatment of detainees. In mid-June, a series of peaceful protests were held across Saudi Arabia by women and children calling for jailed relatives to be freed or given a public and fair trial. Dozens of men were also arrested in Buraidah, Qassim Province, for protesting at the imprisonment of relatives on security charges. Some of those detained were later released. The Ministry of Interior has now launched a website, www.nafethah.gov.sa, designed to increase transparency on detainee issues by allowing a virtual meeting service, visitor requests and monetary assistance for inmates. It also allows trials to be monitored as they progress through the justice system.
One consequence of the slow judicial process is the holding of large numbers of people in Saudi jails. There are frequent delays in releasing inmates who have completed their sentences. Recent reports indicate that prisons are now experiencing overcrowding. The number of people executed in Saudi Arabia stood at 45 by the end of May. As is the usual practice, they were beheaded, mostly in public. Saudi Arabia was the world’s fourth most prolific death penalty user in 2012, behind China, Iran and Iraq.
The one year anniversary of the detention of Raif Badawi in June drew attention to limitations on freedom of expression online He is still awaiting trial for setting up a website that allegedly undermined security and ridiculed religious figures.
The treatment of Human Rights Defenders by the Saudi authorities in this period was not encouraging. The court appeal by Mohammad al-Qahtani and Dr Abdullah al-Hamid began on 28 May. In March, the two men were sentenced to 11years and 10 years respectively in their roles as co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Organisation. Similarly, four founding members of the independent human rights NGO, Union for Human Rights, were charged with founding and publicising an unlicensed organisation, as well as launching websites without authorisation. On the other hand, it was encouraging to hear the Saudi Justice Minister, Dr Mohammed al-Issa, inform the European Parliament in April that there are plans underway to establish a national body for transparency and integrity, which would support the work of NGOs.
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.