April 24, 2005

Saudi Arabia has taken some political reform initiatives, such as the partial elections to municipal councils held over the past few months. But improvements in human rights, where they have occurred at all, have been halting and inadequate. Government proclamations regarding adherence to human rights principles have not led to changes in practices or to public access to information about violations of human rights.

April 21, 2005

President George W. Bush
The White House
Washington D.C. 20500

Dear President Bush,

Crown Prince `Abdullah Ibn `Abd al-`Aziz al-Saud, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, is scheduled to meet with you on April 25. We hope that you will take this opportunity to raise with the crown prince the need for his government to address the serious human rights violations that the government continues to perpetrate and condone.

Saudi Arabia has taken some political reform initiatives, such as the partial elections to municipal councils held over the past few months. But improvements in human rights, where they have occurred at all, have been halting and inadequate. Government proclamations regarding adherence to human rights principles have not led to changes in practices or to public access to information about violations of human rights.

We appreciate your call on the Saudi government, in your most recent State of the Union Address, to expand the role of its people in determining their future. When you meet Crown Prince `Abdullah, we urge you to make clear, in a public manner as well as in private talks, that the United States expects to see concrete improvements in those areas that the Saudi authorities can address directly and immediately. The credibility of your administration’s emphasis on the need for political reform in the region rests in part on your readiness to address the Saudi Arabian government openly on some core issues. These include:

• Release of all political prisoners and dropping all charges stemming solely from public criticism of the government;
• Inclusion of women among those to be appointed to municipal councils throughout the country, and to the appointed Consultative (Shura) Council at the national level;
• Establishing a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

The reason for the first point is clear. Without freedom of association and freedom of expression, there can be no political reform worthy of the name. Yet these rights are conspicuously absent in the kingdom. On March 10, 2004, for example, the authorities arrested thirteen individuals whose “offense” was to circulate a petition calling on Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, and signaling their intent to form an independent human rights monitoring organization. Within several weeks, the government released ten of the group, but only after compelling them to sign an agreement that they would cease their public petition efforts. Three of the men — Matruk al-Falih, `Ali al-Domaini, and `Abdullah al-Hamid — refused to sign the statement and remain in prison. According to press reports, they face charges of “issuing statements,” “gathering signatures,” and “using Western terminology” in calling for reform. The authorities, in an unprecedented step, opened the first session of their trial, on August 9, to the public, but subsequent sessions have been closed, prompting the defendants to refuse to take part in the proceedings. On November 6, 2004, the authorities detained lawyer `Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim, one of the ten who had been released in March who was serving as lead defense counsel for the three. He was reportedly held in solitary confinement for more than two months before being charged with criticizing government officials and violating his March pledge not to speak with the media. As far as we are aware, he too remains in detention today.

The March 2004 arrests occurred at a time when then-Secretary of State Powell was visiting the kingdom, timing that may have been intended to signal opposition to U.S. calls for reform. The administration’s response has, in our view, been inadequate: Secretary Powell mildly criticized the arrest of the thirteen in public at the time, but neither the State Department nor the White House have since mentioned the continued imprisonment of these four individuals on completely specious charges. We call on you to raise these specific cases with Crown Prince `Abdullah when you meet with him, and to refer to them by name in any communiqué or press statement that follows the meeting. We hope that you will make clear that you consider the treatment of these individuals to be emblematic of Saudi Arabia’s response to its human rights crisis, and that their continued incarceration and prosecution makes improvements in U.S.-Saudi relations extremely difficult.

We also call on you to address the issue of severe discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia. While there have been some positive developments, such as the recent denunciation of forced marriages by the country’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Shaikh `Abd al-`Aziz bin Al Shaikh, these statements need to be followed up with action. We urge you to ask the Crown Prince what legal measures the government plans to stop this practice.

There are other areas, moreover, where the government could take concrete steps now to address the severe and pervasive legally-sanctioned discrimination that women face, and to remove government-imposed obstacles to their participation as equals in society. For example, the exclusion of women as voters and candidates in the recent nationwide municipal elections for “logistical” reasons raises doubts about whether the government is serious about granting women decision-making power in public life. Official remarks that women would be allowed to participate when such elections occur again are hardly reassuring, given the government’s past failure to fulfill various promises of reform. If the government wishes to demonstrate good faith in this area, it should appoint a representative number of women to the unelected seats of these municipal councils, and to the national-level Consultative (Shura) Council. Mr. President, we call upon you to make clear that the United States expects to see these sorts of concrete, feasible steps on the part of the government towards ending gender discrimination in the kingdom.

Finally, we want to call your attention to the recent proliferation of judicial executions of Saudi Arabian citizens and, in greater numbers, non-Saudi residents of the country. Just since the beginning of this year the government has executed by public beheading at least thirteen Saudis and twenty-seven persons from south and southeast Asia and Africa. The Saudis and six of the others were executed for crimes of murder and rape; twenty of the non-Saudis were executed for robbery and drug-related offenses. For example, six Somalis who had been arrested six years ago on charges of attempted car-jacking were not aware that they had been condemned to death until they were taken out of their cells to be beheaded earlier this month.

Human Rights Watch opposes any use of the death penalty, and would like to see its abolition in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Our concern is especially grave in places, like Saudi Arabia, where judicial proceedings do not meet international fair trial standards and where the likelihood of serious miscarriages of justice is high. We therefore hope that you will express to Crown Prince `Abdullah your concern at Saudi Arabia’s profligate use of judicial executions, especially against non-citizens for crimes that are not of a most serious nature, and that you will call on Saudi Arabia to impose a moratorium on the implementation of further death sentences.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We would be pleased to provide any additional information that you might request, and we look forward to hearing from your office regarding Crown Prince `Abdullah’s visit.

Sincerely,

Joe Stork
Washington Director
Middle East and North Africa Division

Tom Malinowski
Washington Advocacy Director