The Saudi government should immediately stop harassing Saudi human rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider and allow her to exercise her right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi Arabia’s secret police, known as the mabahith, detained al-Huwaider in Khobar on September 20 and interrogated her for six hours about a women’s rights protest she was organizing before coercing her to sign a statement agreeing to desist from all human rights activities. The police had previously detained al-Huwaider on August 4 as she stood on a street in Khobar holding a placard advocating for women’s rights.

“Al-Huwaider and like-minded Saudis have a right to make public their demands for women’s equality in Saudi Arabia,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “To Saudi Arabia’s secret police, however, a lone woman with a placard advocating women’s rights seems to conjure up the specter of a security threat.”

Al-Huwaider is a member of the group Human Rights First in Saudi Arabia, the country’s only independent human rights group, which the government has refused to license. (For more information, please see the July 2005 letter from Human Rights Watch to then-Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Saud regarding mabahith harassment of the group’s founder, Mr. Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb) The group regularly comments on human rights violations in the kingdom and has condemned the detention of al-Huwaider.

She had chosen August 4 to stage her lone protest because it was the one-year anniversary of King Abdullah’s accession to the Saudi throne, she told Human Rights Watch. Her sign read: “Give women their rights.” Plain-clothed mabahith officers detained her briefly that day and warned her that they disapproved of her public expressions.

On September 20, mabahith officers summoned al-Huwaider from her home, accused her of trying to organize an illegal demonstration, and interrogated her in their Dammam offices for six hours. 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 the government would retaliate against them or their families for holding a public demonstration.

During the interrogation, the mabahith officers demanded that al-Huwaider provide written answers to prepared questions concerning her internet writings and human rights activities. They then 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, the Saudi national oil company, if she were to break these pledges.

Security forces frequently use such extrajudicial pledges to enforce compliance with their demands. In March 2005, the mabahith arrested 13 leading intellectuals and reformers, and later released all but three of them – Ali al-Dumaini, Abdullah al-Hamid and Matruk al-Falih – who refused to sign a pledge to stop public advocacy for reform.

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.

The Saudi police actions infringe on internationally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. International human rights law protects the freedom of every person 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.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported the infringement of women’s rights in the kingdom – the focus of al-Huwaider’s protest. 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 make 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.

“For all the talk of reform, nothing seems to have changed,” said Whitson. “No public protest is permitted, no demands for women’s rights tolerated.”

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to:

  • Cease all harassment of al-Huwaider and her associates and to allow her to travel freely outside the kingdom;
  • Declare all coerced pledges that al-Huwaider may have undertaken while in detention at the mabahith offices on September 20 regarding her future activities null and void, and send her a copy of these instructions;
  • Investigate the instances of official wrongdoing, including the threat to al-Huwaider of the loss of her job;
  • Take disciplinary action where necessary against the mabahith agents involved and submit the results of this investigation to a judicial inquiry, as appropriate; and,
  • Allow independent human rights activists and organizations to monitor human rights developments in the kingdom and to advocate publicly for appropriate changes in government policies.