Regarding the Illegal Imposition of Travel Bans
February 9, 2007

Human Rights Watch is again writing to you regarding travel bans that the Saudi government has imposed arbitrarily on at least 22 Saudi citizens. We regret not receiving a response to our letter of November 2006 in which we initially raised our concerns privately with you.

By imposing travel bans on its citizens, the Saudi government has violated international law. Under international law, everyone is free to leave and return to his or her country. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gives “Everyone […] the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Other international human rights instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bars states from restricting someone’s right to leave the country, except when the restrictions are prescribed by law, and are “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.” Saudi officials recently indicated that in the very near future Saudi Arabia would accede to this treaty.

In principle Saudi domestic law permits the government to impose travel bans in a number of situations. First, Saudi law provides for exceptional and specific circumstances in which a court may impose a travel ban, such as for persons convicted of drug smuggling (The Ministerial Council Decision No. 11 of September 29, 1954) and in circumstances where court proceedings so require (Royal Order of February 9, 1962). In both cases, only a court may issue travel bans. None of the 22 persons in question are involved in either criminal or civil judicial proceedings and, to our knowledge, no court has issued these travel bans in accordance with Saudi law.

Saudi law also permits the Minister of Interior to issue travel bans (Article 6, Travel Documents Law, promulgated August 29, 2000), and it appears that the government relied on this provision of the law to issue the travel bans discussed here. However, the law requires the Ministry to specify its security concerns and to notify the banned person within one week.

“Travel may not be prohibited except by judicial verdict or by a decision issued by the Minister or Interior and for defined reasons related to security and for a known period. In both cases, the person prohibited from travel is to be notified within a period of time not to exceed one week from the date of issuing the verdict or decision of a travel prohibition.”

Here, the law is clear in requiring the government to specify “defined reasons related to security” before imposing a travel ban. Indeed, Saudi law prohibits arbitrary curtailments of a person’s liberty. Article 36 of Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law of 1992 provides that “No person shall be restricted, detained or confined save by law.”

However, it is not enough for a government to refer vaguely to “security reasons” as the basis for limiting a person’s freedom of movement. International law provides that a government can only invoke limitations on the exercise of rights necessary to meet “the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society” (UDHR Article 29(2)).

In the cases in question, the Saudi government has imposed the travel bans without providing the specific security reasons for the bans or notifying the affected individuals critical information concerning their situation, including the identity of the imposing authority or the justification for the ban, as required by Saudi law. In several cases, the government did not even inform the affected individual of the travel ban. In addition, it failed to give them any opportunity to challenge their ban. Ali al-Dumaini was turned back at the border between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain days before his arrest for his political reform ideas in March 2004 and had his passport confiscated. After his release in August 2005, he tried unsuccessfully to retrieve his passport from the local governorate. Matrook Alfaleh, like Mubarak bin Zu`air, found out about his travel ban when he went to the Passport Department, where an official told him that he was on the list of banned persons. In September 2005, the government lifted a travel ban on Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, the president and founder of Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia, but border guards on January 3, 2007 told him his name was back on the list. Muhammad Sa’id Tayyib verified his ban with officials behind the scenes. Others said prison officials verbally informed them upon their release from detention about the ban and its length, usually five years, but did not provide the specified reasons. The secretive and mysterious manner in which the government has imposed and maintained these travel bans underlines their arbitrary nature.

As a case in point, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim found out about his travel ban as he was trying to leave abroad from Riyadh international airport. He sought relief from the Board of Grievances for what he claimed was a wrongly imposed travel ban. In its judgment (copy on file with Human Rights Watch), the Board of Grievances refused to vacate the travel ban despite the obvious procedural breach in the Ministry of Interior’s failure to specify the reasons for the ban or to inform its recipient. Instead, the court declined to review the Ministry’s failure to abide by the law saying the travel ban was an “act of sovereignty” over which it had no jurisdiction. Muhammad al-Amin, the President of the Appeals Chamber of the Board of Grievances, told Human Rights Watch in an interview on December 20, 2006 that the Court interprets “acts of sovereignty” to mean acts that “have to do with peace, war and security.” Security, he said, meant issues that are “at the heart of the entity of the state.” As a result, it appears that there is no judicial body willing to enforce Saudi law on travel bans or to monitor the Ministry of Interior’s compliance with the law.

Rather than overturning the travel ban because of the Ministry’s failure to abide by the terms of the law, the Grievance Board listed several reasons that might have formed the security grounds for the travel ban, including the fact al-Lahim violated a pledge obtained under duress in detention not to speak to the media about his three clients on trial for proposing political and constitutional reform. The court holds against al-Lahim his admission that he “appeared in one of the satellite channels and described as unlawful the arrest of some persons whose arrest the ruler had considered as a protection of the safety of the country.”

Your Majesty, even if the Ministry of Interior had cited this as its security reason, it is not a valid one under Saudi or international law. First, it is difficult to understand how a defense lawyer who speaks to the media about his clients, who are on trial for their writings, constitutes a security threat to Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, what a review of these cases makes clear is that not only has the Ministry of Interior breached the requirements of Saudi law in failing to inform people of the specific security reasons for banning them for travel, it has no legitimate grounds to justify the bans for reasons of national security. Instead, these bans appear motivated by political reasons, to punish Saudi citizens for exercising their right to free speech. The travel ban also punishes family members who must obtain permission to travel abroad, such as women or children. Of the 22 persons listed below, Saudi authorities in March 2004 arrested and imposed a travel ban on 12 after they had signed and circulated a petition calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Nine of the 12 gained their release from detention within a couple of weeks and without formal charges after signing a pledge to refrain from future political activities, but became subject to travel bans. The Saudi government has restored the travel rights of only two of them.

Three of the 12, Matrook Alfaleh, Abdullah al-Hamid, and Ali al-Dumaini refused to sign the pledge. The Greater Riyadh Court in May 2005 sentenced the three men to prison, where they remained until Your Majesty pardoned them in August 2005. They found out later that your royal pardon did not lift their travel ban, which reportedly applies for five years. Saudi authorities arrested and imposed a travel ban on nine other persons listed below apparently solely for supporting the reformers in public statements. Finally the three members of the bin al-Zu’air family apparently received travel bans solely for voicing unwelcome views in public, usually on Al Jazeera satellite station.

In imposing these travel bans, the Saudi government is attempting to punish, silence, and intimidate these 22 individuals either for advocating reform or for speaking their minds freely and it is prevent them from interacting with the outside world. It is also infringing on the legitimate activities of civil society activists in contravention of United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which safeguards the rights of everyone to contact international organizations without interference (Article 5); to freely seek and impart and publish information about human rights (Article 6); and to petition government about human rights abuses (Article 8.2.).

For more than a year, the political and constitutional reform activists put their trust in the Saudi government in their private efforts to persuade the government to lift their travel bans. They have sent petitions to Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Nayef bin Abd al-`Aziz Al Sa`ud, the Minister of Interior and the governmental Human Rights Commission. All of these efforts have failed.

Your Majesty, Human Rights Watch calls on you to order the immediate lifting of the travel bans on the 22 named persons below, as well as similar bans imposed on any other Saudi citizens. We urge you to review the Ministry of Interior’s authority to arbitrarily apply travel bans on grounds of “security”, and to inform the courts that they fail to abide by their judicial responsibilities in refusing to assess the Ministry’s compliance with the terms of Saudi law. Finally, we call on you to ensure that any travel ban imposed by the government will comply with the strict requirements of international human rights law. Freedom of movement is one of the most fundamental and cherished human rights and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should do its utmost to preserve, not undermine, this right.

Thank you in advance for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East & North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Cc: ‘Adil al-Jubair
Ambassador-designate to the United States of America

HRH Prince Nayef bin Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud
Minister of Interior

Shaikh Turki bin Khalid al-Sudairy
President of the Human Rights Commission

List of those prevented from travel:
1. Matrook Alfaleh
2. `Ali al-Dumaini
3. `Abdullah al-Hamid
4. Muhammad Sa’id Tayyib
5. Najib al-Khunaizi
6. Sulaiman al-Rushudi (He is among the persons arrested on suspicious grounds on February 2, 2007)
7. Hamad al-Kanhal
8. Adnan al-Shakhs
9. Ameer Abu Khamsin
10. `Abd al-Rahman al-Lahim
11. Hassan al-Maliki
12. Abd al-Hamid al-Mubarak
13. Muhanna Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hubail
14. `Ali al-Qudhdhami
15. Ahmad al-Qaffari
16. `Issa al-Hamid
17. Muhanna al-Falih
18. Khalid al-`Umair
19. Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb
20. Sa`id bin Zu`air
21. Sa`d Sa`id bin Zu`air
22. Mubarak Sa`id bin Zu`air