The Saudi government is refusing to grant a Human Rights Watch delegation access to the country’s detention facilities despite numerous assurances from senior government officials that such visits could take place, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch informed Saudi authorities of the detention facilities it wanted to visit on October 3, prior to its current visit to the country, its first in nearly four years. Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to grant its delegation full access to prisons, women’s and juvenile detention facilities, and shelters for foreign women in Buraida, Dammam, Jeddah, Najran and Riyadh.

“We’re pleased that Saudi officials have talked to us candidly about human rights in the Kingdom, but disappointed that they haven’t yet fulfilled their commitments to let us visit detention facilities,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who led the delegation last week.

Human Rights Watch began its visit to the kingdom on November 27 and has held meetings with Saudi ministers and corrections officials over the past 10 days. On November 30, Saudi authorities permitted Human Rights Watch to visit a small number of prisoners in just one ward of al-Ha’ir correctional facility (Islahiya al-Ha’ir) south of Riyadh, but blocked the delegation’s attempt to return to the facility on December 2, despite promises of full and repeated access by the assistant director of prison services for the Riyadh region, Muhammad bin Nasir.

On December 7 the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, told The Daily Princetonian that, “Just recently the Kingdom invited a group from Human Rights Watch, which is a humanitarian organization dealing with human rights, to visit the Kingdom, and gave them the freedom to engage with all aspects of the Kingdom including visits to prisons and prisoners, meeting whoever they wanted without monitoring or any overseers.”

The minister of social affairs, Dr. Abdulmuhsin al-`Akkas, promised to facilitate access to detention facilities for Human Rights Watch. And the assistant minister of interior for security affairs, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, and the director of prison services, Dr. Ali al-Ghamidi, gave subsequent assurances of permission. But these assurance have not resulted in actual access to this and other detention facilities that Human Rights Watch detailed in its letter on October 3 and again in a list that is submitted to the Human Rights Commission, the director of prison services and the assistant minister of interior on December 3.

Human Rights Watch researchers have also been unable to access individual detainees in facilities for boys and young men (duwar al-mulahitha al-ijtima`iyya) as well as women and girls accused or convicted of criminal or moral offenses (mu’asasat ra`ayat al-fatayat), as the Saudi government, notwithstanding previous assurances, claims that only the detainees’ guardians could authorize such access. Human Rights Watch respects the wish of any detainee who wishes not to be interviewed and, for those who agree to an interview, keeps their identities confidential if they so request or if they are under 18 years of age. The government has refused Human Rights Watch’s request to meet with detainees or their guardians to ascertain their willingness to be interviewed.

“Senior Saudi officials have been generous with their time. But the true measure of transparency is a willingness to grant independent investigators full and confidential access to detainees in a range of facilities,” said Roth.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the Saudi government’s apparent efforts to surreptitiously limit its ability to talk to people under the government’s control. Foreign embassies in Saudi Arabia report that a Ministry of Social Affairs shelter for foreign domestic workers typically holds hundreds of women, yet when a Human Rights Watch researcher visited the facility, there were only 60 residents present. The women who remained reported that shelter officials had moved approximately 200 others from the shelter the day before. The researcher was able to speak to the remaining domestic workers privately.