HRH Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Assistant Minister for Security Affairs
Ministry of Interior
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Your Royal Highness,
I write to you regarding the recent detention and interrogation by the mabahith (secret police) of Wajeha al-Huwaider, a well-known Saudi writer and human rights activist. Mabahith officers harassed and detained al-Huwaider on August 4 in Khobar and again detained her at the Khobar mabahith offices for questioning on September 20, coercing her into signing a pledge to end her human rights activism. In both cases, these police actions occurred in connection with al-Huwaider’s peaceful demands for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Such harassment of a citizen for expressing her views violates Saudi Arabia’s obligations under international law to respect the right to freedom of expression.
Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that on August 4, the one-year anniversary of King Abdullah’s accession to the Saudi throne, she decided to carry out a protest for women’s rights by standing on a street carrying a sign that said, “Give women their rights.” Plain-clothed mabahith officers detained her briefly that day after the traffic police called them and warned her that they disapproved of her public expressions. On September 20, mabahith officers summoned al-Huwaider from her home and detained her at their Khobar offices for six hours of interrogation. Al-Huwaider said the officers accused her of trying to organize an illegal demonstration. She told Human Rights Watch that she had indeed planned a peaceful protest with a group of women on Saudi Arabia’s national day, September 23, but that the group had abandoned the idea out of fear that their families or the government would retaliate against them for holding a public demonstration.
As you know, al-Huwaider is a member of the group Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia, a human rights group that the government has refused to license. During the interrogation, the mabahith officers demanded that al-Huwaider provide written answers to prepared questions concerning her internet writings and human rights activities. To secure her release, they demanded that she sign a pledge not to engage in any future human rights activities, including writing articles, organizing protests, and speaking to journalists or foreign organizations. They did not provide her with a copy. Officers also threatened that she would lose her job with Aramco if she were to break these pledges.
When al-Huwaider, who lives in Bahrain with her 14-year-old son, tried to return to Bahrain following her release, border officials told her that her name appeared on a list of persons banned from travel, and she was not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia. On September 28, officials apparently lifted the ban and allowed her to return to Bahrain.
Human Rights Watch is seriously concerned by the curtailment of al-Huwaider’s right to peaceful protest as well as the unlawful acts of harassment and arbitrary arrest by the Saudi police.
The Saudi police actions infringe on internationally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees to every person the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Everyone has the right to freely express his or her opinions and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Al-Huwaider was peacefully exercising her right to freedom of assembly and expression when she was arrested protesting for women’s rights. Putting aside her arbitrary detention, addressed below, the Saudi authorities acted improperly and outside their legal authority in insisting that al-Huwaider cease her human rights activism and forcing her to sign a pledge to that effect. They also acted outside their authority by threatening her with the loss of her job.
It should be noted that, in sharp contrast to the requirements of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Saudi Arabia acceded on September 7, 2000, severe discrimination against Saudi women persists, for example in public and private employment, in women’s ability to travel, and in their freedom to take decisions without the approval of their male guardians, usually the husband, father or brother. The Saudi government also barred women from standing as candidates and from voting in the 2005 municipal elections.
In addition, the actions of the mabahith violate both Saudi and international standards prohibiting arbitrary arrests. The Law on Criminal Procedure in Article 2 states: “No person shall be arrested, searched, detained, or imprisoned except in cases provided by law.” Article 16 states: “Whoever is arrested or detained shall be promptly notified of the reasons for his arrest or detention.” Peaceful human rights activism should never serve as justification for an arrest. Furthermore, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has included in its definition of arbitrary arrests situations in which “the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights or freedoms guaranteed by [certain] articles [of] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” such as the freedom of thought and expression.
I urge you, as the assistant minister for security affairs in the Ministry of Interior, to take immediate action to address the following serious violations of Saudi and international law by the mabahith officers under your jurisdiction:
First, the mabahith, and other government officials, should immediately cease their harassment of al-Huwaider, declare all coerced pledges she may have undertaken while in detention regarding her future activities null and void, and ensure that she retains her rights to travel freely. I urge you to instruct the relevant officials to take the necessary steps and provide a copy of the instructions to al-Huwaider so that she is able to defend herself should she face similar abuses in the future. In addition, I urge you to investigate the instances of official wrongdoing, including the threat to al-Huwaider of the loss of her job, to take disciplinary action where necessary against the mabahith agents involved, and to submit the results of your investigation to a judicial inquiry, as appropriate.
Second, the mabahith should end its abuse of human rights activists immediately. I urge you to send a public directive to the mabahith to that effect. Arrests and detentions on the basis of speech not likely to provoke imminent violence should never be permitted; officials should never require citizens to give up their rights to speech and protest in return for release from detention. The government should allow independent human rights activists and organizations to monitor human rights developments in the Kingdom and to advocate for appropriate changes in government policies; they must be able to undertake such activities freely and with the knowledge that government police will not harass, threaten, intimidate or imprison them.
Certainly the efforts of the mabahith play an important role in protecting the safety and security of the people of Saudi Arabia; we hope you can also work to ensure that they do not, at the same time, play a role in undermining the people’s freedoms and universally guaranteed rights.
Sarah Leah Whitson
Middle East & North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch