The absence of legal guarantees is one of the main causes of Saudi Arabia’s serious human rights problems. Without specific legal protections, neither the government nor judges, not to mention ordinary citizens, can know with certainty what is permissible and what is forbidden. As a result, government practices often violate basic rights, the judiciary often acts unfairly, and citizens and residents are unable to seek redress for violations they suffer.
Government officials are apparently not always aware of key aspects of national law. During the U.N. Committee against Torture’s consideration of Saudi Arabia’s 2002 report, for example, Saudi Arabia’s representative stated that there “was nothing to stop a woman from becoming a lawyer, judge, police officer.” In the same year, government officials told the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers that “the Hanbali school, which is followed in Saudi Arabia, does not permit women judges.” There are no women judges in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has over the past decade acceded to four human rights treaties—the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1996), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1997), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1997), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (2000). Recently the government affirmed its intent to become a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, the government’s reservations to the treaties to which it has acceded have put Saudi Arabia’s commitments to the rights of women and children and to the freedom from racial discrimination and torture in question.
Saudi Arabia objects to any provision in such treaties that may be contrary to its interpretation of the precepts of the shari`a. Particularly in the absence of codified shari`a laws and rules of precedent, this reservation grants the government and the judiciary an extremely wide berth for interpreting its obligations under international law and badly undermines the core principle of equality before the law. The Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers noted in his report after a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2002: “Consistency in judicial decisions in similar cases is an essential aspect of a legal system based upon the principle of equality. Without similar cases being treated in an equal manner, a legal system becomes arbitrary in its application of law.”
Saudi Arabia has attempted to codify some fundamental rights into law, but these laws fall short of international standards. The government should take the following steps to expand the scope of legally protected human rights. First, it should accede without delay to the ICCPR and also to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Second, the government should codify international human rights law into its domestic law. Third, Saudi Arabia should improve human rights protections by actively investigating and prosecuting transgressions by state officials, and by training judges in the application of human rights law. This last point is crucial: the Saudi government and courts continue to routinely ignore even the limited protections that Saudi law now affords its citizens—for instance, denying defendants the right to legal representation before and during trial and detaining persons arbitrarily.
Civil and Political Rights
Freedom of Expression
In its practical interpretation of articles of its Basic Law as well as the Press and Publications Law of December 2000 (26/9/1421 AH), Saudi government officials and judges frequently curtail free expression. For example, the requirement in Article 39 of the Basic Law that the media be “courteous and fair” and not publicize anything that “may compromise the security of the State and its public image, or may offend against man's dignity and rights” is vaguely worded. The authorities might well interpret exposure of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia as “compromising the State‘s public image.” Respected editors and journalists like Jamal al-Kashoggi, former editor-in-chief of Al-Watan, and Wajeha al-Huwaider, a former correspondent for ArabNews, found themselves relieved of their positions after writing critically about government policies. Other writers have been unable to place their articles once publishers or editors get a phone call from the Ministry of Information or other officials. The combination of broadly-worded laws and apparent government-inspired reprisals has fostered a pervasive climate of self-censorship.
Article 9 of the Press and Publications Law requires publications reporting on national security issues not to “compromise the country’s security, its public order, or serve foreign interests that clash with national interests.” On April 21, 2004, Saudi journalist Fares bin Hizam was detained and held for several days without charge in Dammam, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ says that his colleagues suspect the government detained Hizam for his articles about terrorism and extremism. The Information Ministry had previously banned newspapers in Saudi Arabia from publishing his work. In January 2005, security officials arrested Muhammad al-Awshan, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Muhayid, for reasons the government did not announce, but his detention was believed to be connected with Awshan’s activities on behalf of Saudi prisoners in Guantanamo.
Infringements on the right to freedom of expression do not only affect writers. The government reportedly banned Muhammad Sa’id Tayyib, a prominent reform advocate in Jeddah, from holding his weekly Thursday debating salon, after briefly jailing him in 2004 for publicly supporting constitutional, educational, and economic reforms.
With regard to the balance between the right to freedom of expression and legitimate national security concerns, the Johannesburg Principles, drafted by a group of experts in international law, national security, and human rights in 1996, provide essential guidance. The Johannesburg Principles have come to be recognized as an authoritative interpretation of the relationship between the right to freedom of expression and other legitimate state and social interests, and reflect a growing body of international legal opinion. They are a useful, practical guide to ascertain the limits of permissible restrictions on free speech when such restrictions are deemed necessary. A national security restriction is only legitimate under the Johannesburg Principles if “its genuine purpose and demonstrable effect” is to “protect a country's existence or its territorial integrity” from an external or internal threat, such as “incitement to violent overthrow of the government.” Neither the Hizam nor the al-Awshan case could reasonably be interpreted to present a danger to Saudi Arabia’s national security commensurate with the restrictions taken by the state to silence these critics.
Under the Johannesburg Principles, restrictions on expressions that may compromise state security are only legitimate if they are not intended to “protect a government from embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing, or to conceal information about the functioning of its public institutions.” Saudi Arabia in practice imposes restrictions that appear to do just that and thus run counter to the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, a right guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR. Restrictions on fundamental rights should not be imposed in a manner that is arbitrary, not strictly necessary, or compromises the existence of the right itself.
Freedom of Assembly
Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law does not guarantee the right of peaceful assembly. Security forces have violently dispersed gatherings such as the October 2003 demonstrations in Riyadh and other cities, and arrested a number of those attempting to protest peacefully. On January 12, 2005 a court in Jeddah affirmed the unofficial ban on public demonstrations by sentencing fifteen individuals to prison sentences and lashes for participating in an October 2004 demonstration in that city. Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right closely tied to the exercise of political rights such as the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly should be spelled out in domestic law. International standards such as those enshrined in the ICCPR permit no restrictions to be placed on the exercise of the right to assembly other than those which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, and which are established by law. Any restriction on freedom of assembly should serve one of these purposes. Advance prohibitions or post-factum dissolutions of assemblies must be exceptional measures, based on well-founded concerns for security or public safety. The restrictions, to be in conformity with principles of international law and equity, should balance the severity of the measure with the reasons for infringing the right. Preventing persons from challenging peacefully the actions of the government or its policies does not constitute a reasonable ground for imposing limitations on the enjoyment of basic rights such as freedom of assembly.
Freedom of Association
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ICCPR contain guarantees on the rights to free speech, assembly and association. The integration of these standards into Saudi Arabian laws followed by proper implementation could have prevented the arbitrary arrest of thirteen reformists in Riyadh on or around March 16, 2004, who had gathered that day in a hotel and had publicly expressed their desire to form a human rights society. In August 2005, King Abdullah amnestied the four of those reformers who remained in prison: Matruk al-Falih, Abdullah al-Hamid, and Ali al-Dumaini—who had been sentenced to between six and nine years in prison for their activities—and Abd ul-Rahman al-Lahim, their lawyer and a fellow reformist who was awaiting trial.
Currently, Saudi law does not guarantee the right of association. The absence of this protection has impaired the formation of organizations promoting and monitoring human rights in the kingdom. Saudi authorities continue to deny the application of a local group, Human Rights First, submitted in November 2002, to incorporate legally. In September 2005 a high interior ministry official made clear that the ministry opposed granting the organization permission to operate as a legal entity. Without such standing, under Saudi law the organizers of Human Rights First cannot open a bank account, receive donations, or conduct activities as an organization.
Religious Freedom and Discrimination
Saudi Arabia forbids the public practice of religions other than Islam. The government also frequently violates its claim that people are free to practice their religions privately in their homes. The Saudi religious police harass and arrest non-Muslims for conducting private religious services. In one of several recent instances, the religious police on March 29 razed a Hindu temple in a private home and arrested several persons; they were subsequently deported. On April 22, the religious police briefly detained forty Pakistani Christians for private worship. On April 27, they arrested three Ethiopian and two Eritrean Christians for the same reason, and released them only five weeks later, on May 30.
Saudi Arabia officially sanctions only one version of Islamic dogma for interpreting faith, religious observance and jurisprudence. Most victims of religious persecution in Saudi Arabia are Muslims who subscribe to other schools or interpretations of Islam, including members of Shi`a and Isma'ili Muslim communities who face officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination. Virtually no Shi`a serve in positions of authority in government, judicial, or educational institutions, even in Saudi Arabia's predominantly Shi`a Eastern Province.
Even for Sunni Muslims, speaking critically about religion can lead to judicial punishment in Saudi Arabia. A Court of First Instance in Riyadh on March 19 convicted and sentenced Hamza al-Muzaini, a professor at King Saud University, on criminal charges of “mocking religion” after he wrote an article contending that the appearance of religious men with long beards indicated a lack of rationality; the Ministry of the Interior later overturned the court decision against al-Muzaini based on a new royal decree stipulating that courts do not have jurisdiction over media issues. Two schoolteachers recently fell victim to the country's strict censure of non-conformist religious interpretation. A high school chemistry teacher, Muhammad al-Harbi, was accused of “mocking Islam” for discussing the subjects of Jews, the Bible, and terrorism with students in his classroom; he was sentenced in November 2005 to three years in prison and 750 lashes. Earlier, in April 2004, a Riyadh teacher named al-Suhaimi was sentenced to three years and 300 lashes for "sanctioning adultery and sodomy," "sanctioning singing and smoking," and "suggesting one should love rather than fear god" in his teaching. The Saudi deputy minister for defense and aviation, Prince `Abd al-Rahman bin `Abd al-`Aziz, initially ordered al-Suhaimi's arrest in response to complaints from conservative religious figures.
Discrimination against Women
The government has failed to uphold its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which it acceded in September 2000. The government banned women from running for office or voting in the municipal elections held earlier this year, in contravention of CEDAW, which guarantees women the right “[t]o vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies.” The government has not permitted women to participate in the formulation of government policy on equal terms with men. Women are excluded, for instance, from the weekly majlis, where senior members of the royal family listen to the complaints and proposals of Saudi citizens. There can be no meaningful and sustainable political reform without the full engagement of women as voters, candidates, and participants in public life.
Women in the kingdom continue to suffer from severe discrimination in the workplaces, homes, and courts, and from restrictions on their freedom of movement. Women do not have the right to leave the house without a male relative or written permission from their guardian, which is also required to enrol in school or university, seek medical help, or open a bank account. There are reports that some government institutions have refused to accept women’s new identity cards, insisting on seeing a woman’s family card as well. A recent study of the Saudi-American Bank found that “compensation of Saudi males is on average two times that of Saudi females with the same level of education.” The government has so far also failed to act on a recommendation from the government-appointed National Dialogue calling for the appointment of women judges to family courts.
Article 149 of the new labor law, passed in late September 2005, allows women to work in all professions “suitable to their nature,” an evident form of discrimination, as there are no restrictions on men’s fields of work based on their “nature.” Article 150 specifically prevents women from working at night and Article 149 empowers the minister of labor to declare certain industries “hazardous” and thus unsuitable for women. Such articles effectively maintain the ban on women practicing law, engineering, and architecture.
Women should be free to determine which jobs they find suitable. CEDAW guarantees women “[t]he right to the same employment opportunities, including the application of the same criteria for selection in matters of employment.” Saudi Arabia is also a party to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 111 concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation, which prohibits any “exclusion … which has the effect of … impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment.”
Discrimination against Migrant Workers
Migrant workers continue to suffer from discrimination in practice and in law. Long working hours and round-the-clock confinement put domestic workers at a heightened risk of abuse. Non-payment of wages for several months and confiscation of passports and residency permits, in contravention of the law, are common violations. The public school system remains closed to the dependents of migrant workers. Poor migrant workers have little if any access to the justice system, given their lack of resources, literacy, and Arabic language capabilities. One-half of those judicially executed so far in 2005 have been mmigrant workers, although they constitute less one third of the population.
Like the old law, the new labor law specifically excludes foreign domestic workers. The government has promised to set out provisions governing domestic work in a Special Appendix to the law. We urge the government to grant domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including recourse to labor courts that have been set up under the new law. The Khaleej Times reported on August 17 that the Ministry of Labor had established a Department for the Protection of Domestic Workers. We recommend that this department inform foreign workers of their rights in a language that they comprehend, publicize the names of those persons who have been judicially banned from sponsorship, and publish the results of its investigations into sponsors who withhold passports, residency permits, and salaries, and who forcibly confine domestic and other workers.
Moratorium on the Death Penalty and Corporal Punishment
If the trend so far this year continues, Saudi Arabia will execute more than 100 persons in 2005, the first year it has done so since 2000. International human rights law, in particular the ICCPR, prohibits the use of the death penalty for all but the most serious crimes. The United Nations has understood the expression “the most serious crimes” as not extending “beyond intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.” Saudi Arabia imposes the death penalty for drug related offenses and for robbery, which in principle should not be considered among the most serious crimes.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a party, also prohibits imposing the death penalty for “crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” A Saudi Arabian court in Dammam in July 2005 sentenced to death Ahmad Abd al-Murdi Mahmud al-Dukkani, who was only thirteen years old at the time of the crime. Human Rights Watch has asked the King in a separate message to commute his sentence.
Saudi Arabian courts also frequently sentence defendants to severe floggings. In August, an appeals court in Mekka reportedly confirmed the sentence of 8,000 lashes for a woman who was convicted of abducting a child. Thousands of lashes are not uncommon sentences in Saudi Arabia. The Special Rapporteur on Torture, in his August 30, 2005, report to the General Assembly, observed that “any form of corporal punishment is contrary to the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Saudi Arabia should immediately issue a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty, as well as on corporal punishments such as flogging, stoning, and amputation, in accordance with its obligations under the Convention against Torture.