Human Rights Watch Finds Violations Against Women, Children, Foreigners
February 17, 2007
The Saudi government’s invitation to Human Rights Watch reflects a newfound openness toward discussing domestic human rights issues. By restricting our access to prisons and withholding general permission to observe trials, however, the Saudi government gave the appearance that it still has much to hide.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

The Saudi government signaled a new willingness to discuss domestic human rights by inviting Human Rights Watch to the kingdom, but authorities also blocked access to trials and places of detention, Human Rights Watch said today.

During Human Rights Watch’s four-week, fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia in December, researchers focused on a range of human rights concerns, including unfair trials, children’s detention, restrictions on women’s legal identity, and abuses against foreign domestic workers.

The governmental Saudi Human Rights Commission arranged access to a wide range of high-level officials, including the assistant minister of interior, the minister of foreign affairs, the country’s chief judge, the chairman of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, and the ministers of labor, education and social affairs. Several ministers expressed their desire to invite Human Rights Watch back to Saudi Arabia to discuss our findings in detail.

Saudi authorities placed Human Rights Watch researchers under 24-hour surveillance, but researchers did not have government escorts when traveling freely in Riyadh, Jeddah, Najran and the Eastern Province. In addition to meeting Saudi officials, researchers met with more than 300 individuals to collect information on human rights violations. A significant number of interlocutors expressed fear of government retaliation.

“The Saudi government’s invitation to Human Rights Watch reflects a newfound openness toward discussing domestic human rights issues,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By restricting our access to prisons and withholding general permission to observe trials, however, the Saudi government gave the appearance that it still has much to hide.”

The government has not yet put into practice laws passed in 2000-2002 to protect the rights of criminal defendants. For example, criminal defendants are not informed of the possibility of appointing legal counsel. Lawyers have difficulty obtaining official documents to prepare a defense, although Saudi law stipulates that “government agencies … enable [the lawyer] to attend any interrogation and peruse any relevant documents.”

Saudi courts and judicial procedures remain largely closed to the public. Judges in Jeddah in Najran refused a Human Rights Watch researcher access to attend criminal trials in session, notwithstanding article 155 of the 2002 Saudi Code of Criminal Procedure that provides that “Court hearings shall be public.” Former defendants frequently allege that judges in criminal trials pronounce guilty verdicts based on little evidence or testimony. Judges did not issue a written verdict in some cases, such as those related to political trials of an alleged uprising in Najran in 2000.

During Human Rights Watch’s visit to al-Ha’ir prison south of Riyadh, prisoners reported that they had suffered physical abuse, had remained imprisoned beyond the expiry of their sentences (particularly in the case of foreign prisoners), and had endured unexplained and lengthy delays before or during their trials. Foreign embassies reported delays of weeks or months before being notified of their nationals’ arrest. The secret police (mabahith) holds thousands of security detainees without trial, charge or access to counsel for months and years. These detainees include individuals suspected of involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, in addition to political dissidents. Article 114 of the Criminal Procedure Code requires that “the accused shall be directly transferred to the competent court, or be released” after 6 months of the initial arrest.

In interviews with roughly 100 Saudi women academics, educators and medical professionals, Human Rights Watch documented how male guardianship of adult women denies women the right to employment, education, health, and freedom of movement. Government policy often explicitly requires male consent for a range of everyday activities. This system, premised on the idea that women have limited or no legal capacity to act on their own behalf, affects all Saudi women across economic or social divides. While guardianship is construed as a form of protection for women, in fact, it fails to protect some of their most basic rights.

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia confront a precarious legal situation. They can only obtain visas through their Saudi employers, who have the power to repatriate them at any time, or to prevent their return home by holding their passports and refusing to sign exit visas. Women migrant domestic workers are particularly at risk of abuse, as they are excluded from the protections of the Labor Code and redress through labor courts. Many employers place tight restrictions on their communication. The Ministry of Labor said that it is developing additional provisions covering domestic workers.

Labor abuses are pervasive in Saudi Arabia. These abuses include nonpayment of wages for months or years, long working hours with no days off, and confinement to the workplace. Human Rights Watch also documented several cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse, forced labor, and trafficking of persons. Foreign workers have little bargaining power in the labor courts because they lack financial resources and expertise for lengthy legal battles. The police and the Ministry of Social Affairs sometimes assist domestic workers to recover their wages.

Saudi authorities routinely detain children suspected of even minor offenses, including vague charges of transgressing “morals,” and such children may face solitary confinement and corporal punishment. Detained children are at risk of abuse by other inmates in the Riyadh reformatories because staff do not adequately categorize, separate, and monitor children, especially in large, poorly supervised dormitories. While children are not tried in adult courts, they may face adult sentences if a judge determines they are considered “grown-ups” (baligh), and such children, even as young as 13, have been sentenced to death.

The opportunity for public discussion of human rights issues has gradually increased in Saudi Arabia, but nonetheless remains tightly controlled. In 2004, the government instigated the formation of a National Society for Human Rights. It primarily addresses domestic abuse, HIV/AIDS, and alternatives to imprisonment. Earlier this year, the Society for the first time commented on such sensitive topics as a case of a judge forcibly divorcing a consenting married couple and the arrests of political dissidents in Jeddah.

In 2005, the king created a governmental Human Rights Commission, whose board was finally appointed in January, after a 16-month delay. The long delay, the exclusion of women from the board and the replacement of a candidate representing the Isma’ili religious minority represent steps backwards. Nevertheless, during Human Rights Watch’s visit, Foreign Minister Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal characterized these and other developments over the past decade as a “dramatic change of direction” for human rights.