Lack of Legal Framework for Independent Groups Opens Activists to Prosecution
(Beirut) – Saudi officials have been refusing to register human rights groups, leaving members subject to criminal prosecution for “setting up an unregistered organization.” Saudi authorities should stop blocking the registration of human rights organizations and other independent groups and pass an associations law that gives groups the right to operate without undue government interference.
On August 28, 2013, founders of the Adala Center for Human Rights received an appeals court verdict affirming the Social Affairs Ministry’s denial of registration. The ministry said it can only license charitable organizations, and that Adala’s activities are not covered under the ministry’s definition of a charity. It was the latest in a series of such refusals to register human rights groups.
“Saudi Arabia created a catch 22 situation and is exploiting it to harass and prosecute human rights activists,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director. “The authorities should immediately pass an associations law that meets international standards, and let independent human rights and other activists operate without harassment.”
Saudi officials have spoken of passing an associations law that would permit the formation of non-charity organizations. The Social Affairs Ministry in 2006 submitted a first draft to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the king. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the Shura Council approved an amended version and submitted it to the Council of Ministers for final approval in 2008, but the ministers have taken no action since studying the law in 2009. The most recent version would allow groups to operate only under highly restrictive conditions.
The Adala Center for Human Rights is based in Eastern Province – and is dedicated, in the words of its website, to “spreading a culture of human rights and capacity building,” “strengthening the relationship between rights groups and the media,” “monitoring and documenting human rights cases,” and “supporting victims of abuses.” Activists who established the center submitted a registration application to the Social Affairs Ministry in December 2011.
In the absence of an associations law, the ministry regulates nongovernmental groups in accordance with the Regulation on Charitable Associations and Foundations (Council of Ministers decision no. 107 of 1990). Article 2 authorizes the ministry to register charitable, educational, cultural, and health associations that “are related to humanitarian services and do not have the goal of obtaining material profit.”
In December 2011 the ministry notified Adala that it had rejected its application on the basis that its objectives are “not in line with the regulation on charitable foundations and associations.”
In April 2012, members of the center filed a lawsuit against the ministry before an administrative court, contending that the objectives of “education, spreading a culture of human rights,” and “educating people about their rights and duties as citizens” do not contradict the provisions of article 2. Adala’s lawyer noted that establishment of the center falls in line with the first objective of King Abdullah’s Ninth Development Plan, issued in 2009, which aims to “guarantee human rights,” among other objectives.
Following a 13-month court battle, a panel of three administrative court judges unanimously rejected Adala’s claim on May 27, 2013, upholding the ministry’s position. The judgment, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, also took issue with Adala’s stated reliance on principles of international human rights law, saying, “It is known for certain that many of [these] laws are not in agreement with Islamic Law, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country whose constitution is the book of God [the Qur’an] and the Sunna of his messenger…”
Adala appealed the ruling on July 9, but a Saudi appeals court upheld the administrative court ruling on August 28. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that Adala may close its doors in the absence of the passage of an associations law that would allow the group to acquire legal standing.
“As Saudi Arabia openly campaigns for a seat next year on the UN Human Rights Council, member states should take notice that a Saudi court has ruled that certain human rights standards are not applicable in the kingdom,” Stork said. “Freedom of association is a bedrock human rights principle, yet it is impossible to exercise that right in Saudi Arabia.”
Union for Human Rights
In late April, a group of Riyadh-based activists attempted to create a new human rights organization they called the Union for Human Rights, and applied for registration. The ministry rejected the application in May. In the rejection letter, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, the director general of charitable associations and institutions, Mashawah bin Abd al-Rahman al-Howshan, wrote that, “…in studying the application it became clear that it is not in line with the regulation on charitable foundations and associations… we advise you to await the issuance of the law on civil associations and institutions, which provides for the establishment of civil associations in the area of human rights.”
One of the group’s founders told Human Rights Watch that interior ministry investigators summoned him and three other members of the group for investigation in May and June, threatening to charge them with establishing an unregistered organization if they did not halt their activities. The founder said that the group had decided to cease operations until authorities issue an associations law.
Saudi Human Rights Monitor
A Jeddah-based human rights activist and lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, told Human Rights Watch that he attempted to register the Saudi Human Rights Monitor in 2009. The Social Affairs Ministry rejected his application and blocked the group’s website and Facebook pages. Abu al-Khair said that he registered the organization in Canada in 2012 and then sent a letter to the king appealing for recognition of the group in Saudi Arabia. Abu al-Khair said that the Royal Court responded by forwarding his correspondence to the Interior Ministry, which opened an investigation of the group.
Abu al-Khair is currently on trial in Jeddah’s Criminal Court on unrelated charges that include “offending the judiciary” and “attempting to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”
Saudi Association on Civil and Political Rights
Riyadh-based activists told Human Rights Watch that founders of the Saudi Association on Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA) did not attempt to register the organization with the Social Affairs Ministry, fearing that a rejection would leave the group officially illegal and open members to criminal liability. Members instead appealed directly to the king for recognition in October 2009, but the Royal Court did not respond.
In March 2013 a court in Riyadh convicted Muhammad al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, members of the group, on charges that included “participating in setting up an unlicensed organization.” The verdicts also ordered “the dissolution of the association known as the Civil and Political Rights Association and [cessation] of all its activities… for not obtaining permission to perform its activities and not obtaining licensing to start its activities.” The Specialized Criminal Court sentenced another activist from the group, Muhammad al-Bajadi, to four years in prison on a list of charges that included “participating in setting up an unlicensed organization.”
Local activists told Human Rights Watch that Adala members are concerned that the recent court ruling will also expose them to criminal prosecution for participation in an unlicensed organization. One Adala member, Fadhil al-Manasif, is on trial before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court on charges that include “breaking allegiance with the king,” for allegedly planning and participating in protests. Authorities also accused him of violating provisions of Saudi Arabia anti-cybercrime law and “communication with foreign media agencies that aim to exaggerate news and insult the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people.” Al-Manasif’s second hearing is scheduled for August 22.
Draft Associations Law
Two human rights bodies are operating legally in the kingdom. In 2005, decision no. 207 of the Council of Ministers set up the government-affiliated Human Rights Commission and tasked it with ensuring government compliance with international human rights agreements and covenants ratified by the kingdom, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
In 2004 a royal decree set up the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) to monitor human rights violations and publish periodic reports on the human rights situation in the country. According to the 2012 US human rights report on Saudi Arabia, the NSHR receives monetary support from a trust funded by the estate of the late King Fahd. Since both organizations have direct executive approval to operate, neither falls under the scope of the Law on Charitable Institutions and Associations.
The Social Affairs Ministry submitted the draft Law on Civil Associations and Institutions for government approval in 2006. It would allow for the licensing of civil and scientific associations and institutions.
In December 2007 the Shura Council, the highest advisory body in Saudi Arabia, revised and published an updated copy of the draft law. Al-Watan newspaper published a copy of the draft law with further revisions in January 2008. This remains the latest public draft.
It would establish a National Commission for Civil Associations and Institutions not just authorized to regulate nongovernmental groups, but with what would appear to be sweeping powers to unduly interfere in their operation. It would have the legal power to unilaterally abolish or replace the board of any group in certain circumstances, such as going against public order or Islamic law. The law would allow nongovernmental groups to receive foreign funding only with the commission’s approval. Such provisions would severely limit the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate independently, Human Rights Watch said.
According to the website of Saudi Arabia’s Bureau of Experts, which reviews, studies, and suggests amendments to laws under consideration by the Council of Ministers, the bureau reviewed the draft associations law in 2009, but the result has not been published.
As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, the authorities have taken no further action on the draft law since 2009, though members of the governmental Human Rights Commission told a Human Rights Watch researcher in Riyadh in July that the law is still under consideration and could be issued soon.
The absence of a Saudi law governing associations leaves human rights activists with no legal basis to perform their work, and the most recent version of the draft associations law would allow them to operate only under highly restrictive conditions, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should revise and pass an associations law that allows human rights organizations and other civic associations operate freely in the kingdom.