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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, continued to violate a broad array of civil and political rights, allowing no criticism of the government, no political parties, nor any other potential challenges to its system of government. The use of arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention, torture, and corporal and capital punishment was common in both political and common criminal cases, and the judicial system failed to provide the most basic fair trial guarantees.

Women faced institutionalized discrimination affecting their freedom of movement and association and their right to equality in employment and education. Muslim religious practices deemed heterodox by government-appointed Islamic scholars, and all non-Muslim religious practices, were banned and subject to criminal prosecution . Labor organizing and collective bargaining were also illegal. Saudi labor law gives employers tremendous control over foreign workers' freedom of movement, control that was often used to force workers to accept oppressive labor conditions or forgo legitimate claims to compensation. Labor protections did not extend to domestic workers, and labor courts rarely enforced the few protections provided by law, such as when workers sought to have the terms of their contracts honored.

Saudi law granted the king broad powers to appoint and dismiss judges and create special courts, undermining judicial independence. Detainees had no right to legal counsel, to examine witnesses, or to call witnesses in their own defense. The law also allowed for unlimited pre-trial detention, and conviction on the basis of uncorroborated confessions. Article 4 of the Basic Law of 1992 waived, for cases of "crimes involving national security," the few protections Saudi law did offer detainees. In this article, these crimes are so broadly defined as potentially to extend to nonviolent opposition to the government.

The Saudi government has not published or disseminated a penal code, code of criminal procedure, or code of judicial procedure. Only a limited number of laws existed in published form. Principles of Islamic law were subject to reinterpretation by government-appointed religious leaders. Judges enjoyed broad discretion in determining which witnesses would be called to testify, and in defining criminal offenses and setting their punishments. These factors encouraged arbitrariness in sentencing and allowed great scope for manipulation of the justice system by well-connected interested parties.

The case of `Abd al-Karim al-Naqshabandi, a Syrian worker executed on witchcraft charges in December 1996, illustrated how defendants' rights were violated and decisions regarding arrest, trial and sentencing were vulnerable to outside intervention. According to al-Naqshabandi's written testimony, he was arrested in 1994 at the behest of his employer, a nephew of King Fahd. The primary evidence against him appears to have been his alleged possession of religious amulets. Denied access to a lawyer and physically abused in police custody, al-Naqshabandi signed a confession that he attempted to retract during the trial. Although he provided names of twenty-three individuals who could have given testimony on his behalf, the judge called only prosecution witnesses. Friends and family members who visited al-Naqshabandi in prison three days before his execution said that he had no knowledge he had even been convicted, and his family only learned of his execution when they read about it in the newspaper. As of October his body had not been returned to his family for burial, despite an official request from the Syrian embassy. The case was featured in a Human Rights Watch report issued in October.

Two British nurses employed in Riyadh who were charged with murdering an Australian colleague were, in a highly unusual development, allowed access to legal counsel during their trial. British consular officials also received permission to attend the hearings. Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan both attempted to withdraw confessions obtained from them, saying they confessed under duress after being subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse during their interrogation. Their lawyers reported that they were not allowed adequate opportunity to review the prosecution case or to submit evidence, and charged that "all they [the judges] looked at were the two confessions, which had been retracted. Never once did they examine how flimsy and circumstantial the evidence is." Verdicts were apparently reached in August but lawyers for McLauchlan were only notified of the sentence of 500 lashes and eight years imprisonment in late September. Parry was believed to be facing a death sentence but as of late October her sentence had not been announced. A death penalty in a murder case can be commuted if the victim's family agrees to commutation in exchange for compensation, and on October 15 the victim's brother agreed to the commutation in exchange for U.S.$1.2 million. Both Parry and McLauchlan's sentences must undergo additional review, and may be reduced in light of the settlement.

In January a group of nineteen Pakistanis, including seven children, were arrested on drug smuggling charges on their arrival in Jeddah. Drug smuggling carries a death sentence in Saudi Arabia. In August Saudi ambassador to Pakistan Asad Abdul Aziz al-Zuhair denied press reports that he had promised Pakistani officials that the children would be returned to Pakistan, saying that "the case is before the court and [the children] may be released afterwards." Islamic law sets puberty as the age of criminal responsibility, raising the possibility that at least one of the older children, a thirteen-year-old girl, could be convicted. Although Saudi Arabia in 1996 ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits sentences of capital punishment or life imprisonment for minors, it entered formal reservations exempting itself from the obligation to comply with "all such articles as are in conflict with the provisions of Islamic law."

Shi`a citizens of Saudi Arabia faced widespread government discrimination, including unequal access to social services, education, and government jobs, especially those in the national security sector. The government rarely permitted private construction of Shi`a mosques or community centers, and even books on Shi`ism were banned. In its 1996/97 annual report, the al-Haramain Islamic Information Center, a London-based Shi`a organization, published the text of a December 1996 court ruling against Mohammad Hussayn Mohammad al-Tawil and `Abdullah `Ali Hassan al-Jatil on charges of bringing 1,313 Shi`a religious books into Saudi Arabia from Kuwait. Describing the books as constituting "a definition of the doctrine of this corrupt sect," the judge sentenced Al-Tawil to one year in prison and 240 lashes, and al-Jatil to eighteen months in prison and 300 lashes.

Widespread arrests of Shi`a suspected of political activities continued throughout 1997, and were especially frequent in Eastern province, where the majority of Shi`a reside. A number of those arrested were Shi`a clerics, including Hassan Muhammad al-Nimr, who was arrested on March 25. Individuals in custody were frequently subject to threats and abuse during interrogation, according to Shi`a organizations in exile. In December 1996 Al-Haramain reported the death in police custody of twenty-one-year-old Haytham `Ali Bahr, apparently as a result of torture. Human Rights Watch received reports that at least two other individuals were hospitalized as a result of torture in police custody during 1997.

The government owned all domestic radio and television stations, and exerted tremendous influence over other domestic and international media outlets. Several important foreign-based print and broadcasting media were owned by members of the Saudi royal family or their associates, and according to the Committee To Protect Journalists, the domestic media was subject to close supervision by the king, who had to approve senior staffing decisions. Foreign publications were often censored or banned. In January the Egyptian literary magazine Akhbar al-adab was banned, apparently because its cover featured a drawing of Jesus. A May issue of al-Hayat newspaper containing an interview with Osama bin Ladin, an exiled Saudi financier known for backing radical Islamic groups, was confiscated before reaching newsstands.

Saudi Arabia's accession in September to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was undercut by the formal reservations it registered. The government exempted itself from the obligation to implement CERD provisions it deemed "in contradiction with the Shari`a," and rejected Article 22's provision allowing any State Party to bring disputes over interpretation or application of the convention to the International Court of Justice. Its reservation to the Convention against Torture rejected the provision of Article 3, which forbids turning overa person to another state where he or she may be at risk of torture, and Article 20, which provides a mechanism for monitoring and reporting on patterns of torture. Saudi Arabia has on several occasions deported or extradited individuals to countries where they were at risk of torture.

In July King Fahd expanded the all-male Consultative (Shura) Council from sixty to ninety members, including two Shi`a members. The first appointments to the council, in 1993, included only one Shi`a member, although the Shi`a community is believed to comprise about 10 percent of the Saudi population. The council is an appointed advisory body with no legislative functions. Its meetings are closed to the public and members are forbidden to take any documents relating to the council's work out of the council offices.

The Right to Monitor

Saudi controls on information and its harsh suppression of freedom of conscience and expression made it impossible for human rights organizations to operate in Saudi Arabia. Government monitoring of telephone and mail communications made Saudis reluctant to comment on human rights conditions there, and even those who lived abroad often requested anonymity when providing human rights information, so as to avoid reprisals against themselves or their families.

No international human rights organization has received authorization to conduct a mission to Saudi Arabia for several years. In 1995 Human Rights Watch received a verbal invitation to visit the country from Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., but subsequent inquiries to follow up on the invitation have gone unanswered.

Foreign journalists needed visas to enter Saudi Arabia and were often refused access.

The Role of the

International Community

United Kingdom

Saudi Arabia remained a major U.K. trading partner and market for arms exports. British firms were in competition for arms contracts worth several billion dollars. Secretary of State Robin Cook announced in July that the new Labour Party government policy would reflect a commitment to human rights, and promised a review of British arms sales and military training assistance programs to ensure that they were consistent with human rights objectives. As of October the results of such a review had not been made public.

British courts in May allowed three domestic workers, all Philippines nationals, to sue their employers, one of whom belonged to the Saudi royal family, for physical abuse, forced confinement, and breach of contract. The abuses allegedly were suffered both in Saudi Arabia and when they were brought to work for the couple in London. British law since 1980 allowed foreigners to bring domestic staff with them to Britain on the condition that these workers not change jobs while in Britain, a condition that forced some workers to submit to abuse or accept deportation. Geraldine Juralbal and Josephine and Slordeliza Mabanta had contested their employers' arguments that the case should be heard in Saudi Arabia, saying they would not be able to get a fair hearing in Saudi Arabia and they would be at risk if they were returned there. Lawyers for the women expected the case to go to trial in early 1998. In August Immigration Minister Mike O'Brian said that he was "very concerned by repeated allegations of ill-treatment of domestic workers allowed temporary entry into Britain to work for their foreign employer," and promised that "the Government intends to tackle this."

In September Secretary Cook broke a long British tradition of "quiet diplomacy," to publicly denounce the sentence of 500 lashes against British citizen Lucille McLauchlan ( see above), calling it "wholly unacceptable in the modern world."

United States

Saudi Arabia continued to enjoy close relations with the U.S. in a strategic partnership. It provided a major market for U.S. arms and civilian goods, a base for over 5,000 U.S. troops and for U.S. planes patrolling the "no-fly zone" in southern Iraq, and remained a major force in the oil industry. In 1996 U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia reached U.S.$7.31 billion, while Saudi petroleum exports to the U.S. totaled U.S. $8.16 billion.

Although the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996 provided a fairly comprehensive overview of the range of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, such criticisms seemed to have little or no impact on U.S. policy, and public statements on Saudi Arabia throughout the year rarely included human rights concerns. One exception was the issue of religious freedom, which was the subject of congressional hearings and proposed legislation providing for sanctions against governments engaged in religious persecution. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck said in January, "We have been very concerned and have raised both privately and publicly the issue of freedom of religion and particularly the question of free exercise of religion by United States personnel when they are in Saudi Arabia . . . I think our engagement on thissubject is very important in terms of presenting a climate in which individuals from overseas are able to practice their faiths." At his confirmation hearing in September, however, Wyche Fowler, the new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, raised the issue of that country's prohibition against Christian worship, but he made no criticism of Saudi policy and appeared to dismiss it as a matter of concern. "The strong emphasis that is placed on the privacy of the individual's home," Fowler stated, allowed "many Americans [to] express their religious faith privately or in the company of close friends and associates. In fact, many Americans have developed personal networks that allow them to exercise their faith in a manner which they find personally satisfactory." And the U.S. took no public stance during the year in defense of the rights of Saudi or other non-U.S. nationals who were discriminated against because of their religious beliefs, including the indigenous Shi`a minority.

Saudi Arabia's human rights record may have been cited by U.S. Justice Department officials in efforts to gain custody of Shi`a dissident Hani `Abd al-Rahim al-Sayegh after his arrest in Canada. After transiting the U.S. al-Sayegh had sought asylum in Canada, where he was arrested in March, apparently on the basis of Saudi reports implicating him in the June 1996 al-Khobar bombing that killed nineteen U.S. soldiers. Al-Sayegh did not contest Canada's decision to return him to the U.S. in June, after seeking guarantees that he would not be refouled to Saudi Arabia. Al-Sayegh's lawyer alleged the American authorities threatened al-Sayegh with return to Saudi Arabia if he refused to plead guilty to charges that he participated in planning an attack prior to the al-Khobar bombing that was not carried out. On his return he pleaded not guilty. The U.S. moved to dismiss the case for lack of evidence in September, and said it would "respond appropriately" to Saudi requests for extradition. In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Human Rights Watch voiced concern about the U.S.'s alleged use of a credible fear of torture and severe mistreatment to pressure al-Sayegh, and warned that the extradition of al-Sayegh to Saudi Arabia would violate the U.S.'s obligation as a party to the Convention against Torture to refrain from extraditing persons to a country where they would be at risk of torture. The Justice Department responded on October 18 that "[a]uthorities in both this Department and the State Department are cognizant of their responsibilities relating to human rights issues, and such issues will be carefully evaluated in the event the point is reached at which they are pertinent." The letter also stated that al-Sayegh "has not been subjected to coercion by U.S. authorities."

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:

Saudi Arabia -Flawed Justice: The Execution of `Abd al-Karim Mara`i al-Nashquabandi, 10/97

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