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(London) - In Saudi Arabia foreign workers—who comprise one-third of the kingdom’s population—face torture, forced confessions and unfair trials when they are accused of crimes, Human Rights Watch said today in a report that offers a rare glimpse into the Saudi justice system.

A new 135-page report, “Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia,” provides the first comprehensive look at the pervasive abuses foreign workers endure in Saudi Arabia. The report also shows the abysmal and exploitative labor conditions many workers face, and the utter failure of the justice system to provide redress.

Human Rights Watch documented how foreigners detained in Saudi Arabia have been denied consular visits and forced to sign confessions that they could not read. The report includes cases of beheading in which the embassies and families of the condemned men were not informed of the executions until after they were carried out.

“Saudi Arabia’s troubles run much deeper than the terror attacks that are claiming the lives of innocent civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “The abuses we found against foreign workers demonstrate appalling flaws in the kingdom’s criminal justice system as a whole. If the Saudi government is serious about reform, this would be a good place to start.”

Last year the Saudi government invited a Human Rights Watch delegation to visit the kingdom for talks with officials, but has not responded to numerous requests for permission to carry out field research, including meeting with victims of abuse. The interviews for the report were conducted mostly in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines with workers who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia.

The report documents the failure of the Saudi government to enforce its own labor laws in the face of significant abuses of foreign workers by their employers.

“We found men and women in conditions resembling slavery,” said Whitson. “Case after case demonstrates that the Saudis are turning a blind eye to systematic abuses against foreign workers.”

Human Rights Watch also examined gender discrimination, using information obtained directly from Asian women who had recently worked in Saudi Arabia. The report highlights the widespread practice of forced, around-the-clock confinement of women in unsafe conditions.

In one case, some 300 women from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, cleaning hospitals in Jeddah. At the end of each work day, they were returned to crowded, dormitory-style housing, with 14 women sharing one small room lined with bunk beds. The doors to the rooms were locked from the outside, denying the women any freedom of movement for the two or three years of their contracts.

Human Rights Watch said that forced confinement of workers, in particular women workers, should be a criminal offense under Saudi law.

The report includes four cases of women who were victims of forced confinement and sexual abuse, including rape. In all four cases, the perpetrators—three of whom were alleged rapists—did not face criminal investigation or prosecution. The report also has information about women whom Human Rights Watch found in a prison in Riyadh who were serving sentences for “illegal pregnancies.”

“The pervasive gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia’s legal system, coupled with law enforcement officials’ indifference to women’s complaints, places them at great risk,” said Whitson. “Add forced confinement to this mix, and the danger of sexual violence is only heightened.”

There are 8.8 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi al-Ghosaibi disclosed in May, a figure significantly higher than any that the government has previously reported. With an indigenous population of about 17 million, this means that there is almost one foreign resident for every two Saudi citizens.

The largest expatriate communities in Saudi Arabia include one million to 1.5 million people each from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and another 900,000 each from Egypt, Sudan and the Philippines. There are also 500,000 workers from Indonesia, and another 350,000 from Sri Lanka, the majority of whom are women.

The report includes over 25 specific recommendations to various Saudi government officials, including Crown Prince Abdullah, and the ministers of interior, justice and labor. These include:

  • Take immediate action to inform all foreign workers in the kingdom of their rights under Saudi and international law.
  • Suspend implementation of death sentences for Saudi citizens and foreigners, until it can be determined independently that torture was not used and confessions were not coerced. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances.
  • Halt the arrest and imprisonment of women who become pregnant voluntarily or because they were victims of rape.
  • End immediately the forced confinement of workers, impose substantial penalties on employers who continue the practice, and provide fair and equal compensation to the victims.
  • Bring interior ministry practices into conformity with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which is the international treaty that establishes the right of consular officials to prompt notification about the arrest of their nationals.

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