Arrests and Deportations of South Asians on Religious Basis Must End
January 24, 2007
The Saudi government’s persecution of Ahmadis on the basis of their faith is turning Saudi Arabia into a byword for religious intolerance. King Abdullah must immediately put an end to this campaign and investigate those responsible for this wave of arrests and deportations.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

Saudi Arabia must stop its nationwide campaign to arrest and deport Ahmadis from countries such as India and Pakistan on the basis of their religious belief, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to King Abdullah.

The Saudi government has so far arrested 56 non-Saudi followers of the Ahmadi faith, including infants and young children, and deported at least eight to India and Pakistan, without charging them with a crime. Many other Ahmadis legally resident in Saudi Arabia are reportedly in hiding or have left the country voluntarily for their own safety. Ahmadis in Saudi Arabia are a small community of foreign workers primarily from India and Pakistan, who consider themselves Muslims and follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th-century Muslim reformer. They also face official persecution in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“The Saudi government’s persecution of Ahmadis on the basis of their faith is turning Saudi Arabia into a byword for religious intolerance,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “King Abdullah must immediately put an end to this campaign and investigate those responsible for this wave of arrests and deportations.”

On December 29, Saudi Arabia’s religious police arrested 49 Ahmadis from a guest house in Jeddah, where they had been regularly meeting for months for Friday prayers and get-togethers. On January 5, 6 and 8, Saudi security forces arrested five more Ahmadis in Jeddah and Jubail and Dammam. Many of the Ahmadis arrested had been working in Saudi Arabia for years.

The religious police transferred the arrested group of Ahmadis in Jeddah to the Tamir local police station, where the men and the boys spent one night sleeping under guard in an open veranda. The group contained 14 children, including an 8-month-old infant. Then police moved them to Buraiman Prison, where they held them along with about 400 convicted criminals for 12 days and provided meager and poor-quality food. Their Saudi visa sponsors managed to get all but four of them released pending their deportation.

The arrests apparently came under orders of Minister of Interior Prince Nayef, and targeted Ahmadis solely because of their faith, one officer at the Jeddah police station told the detainees.

An intelligence interrogator asked Abd al-Sami, an Ahmadi arrested in Jubail on January 8: “How many people of your group are in other cities and who are they?” The interrogator then questioned him about specific names.

International human rights law protects the freedom of religion, including the “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 18). The Saudi government’s arrest and detention of members of the Ahmadi community solely on the basis of their religion is a grave violation of this right.

In July of last year, Saudi officials assured the U.S. government that the kingdom would respect the right to private worship. In response, the United States chose not to impose sanctions for Saudi violations of religious freedom.

“Washington should not turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s violations of religious freedom,” said Whitson. “These arrests are a clear indication of the Saudi government’s intolerance of freedom of worship.”

In addition, some of these arrests violate Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which obligates Saudi Arabia to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child's parents.” The convention also requires that the detention of juveniles be a last resort.

An Indian diplomat told Human Rights Watch that Indian consular officials had visited Ahmadi detainees of Indian nationality. Syrian and Pakistani diplomats have not visited detained nationals of their countries.

“Religious persecution of a country’s nationals abroad should raise alarm bells for any diplomat,” Whitson said. “Governments of countries like India and Pakistan should immediately raise this issue of persecution with the Saudi authorities.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to end its campaign of religious persecution of Ahmadis. The government should release all persons detained in this campaign, stop their deportation and readmit those already deported. Saudi Arabia should publicly commit and respect freedom of religion and freedom to peacefully assemble and pray with others, and it should bring those responsible for instigating and participating in religious persecution to justice.

“King Abdullah needs to act swiftly to show the world that persecution of religious minorities is not a Saudi government policy,” said Whitson.