Skip to main content

France/Saudi Arabia: Sarkozy Should Raise Human Rights Issues in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Government Denies Fundamental Freedoms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy should use his January 13-14 visit to Saudi Arabia to raise human rights concerns with Saudi’s King Abdullah, Human Rights Watch said today. The Saudi government denies its citizens basic rights to free speech, assembly and association, commits abuses with impunity, and systematically discriminates against migrant workers, women and religious minorities.

France says its “strategic partnership” with Saudi Arabia is based on the “convergence of views on the vast majority of international issues and quality personal relations at the highest level.”

“Saudi Arabia’s regional importance and the lucrative foreign contracts available there shouldn’t stop President Sarkozy from speaking out about its pervasive human rights abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia represses dissidents, women and minorities, tortures prisoners, and mistreats migrant workers. France shouldn’t put business deals ahead of people’s human rights.”

In December 2006, Human Rights Watch carried out the first independent fact-finding mission by an international human rights group to the kingdom, which has not acceded to the two fundamental human rights treaties, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Human Rights Watch notes many concerns, including:

  • Saudi Arabia has no written penal code, and law enforcement agencies and courts rely on vague and overly broad notions of criminal acts.
  • Saudi Arabia regularly denies its citizens the right to free association, peaceful assembly and free expression.
  • Torture remains common for criminal defendants before trial and detainees in prison, as captured on an April 2007 video.
  • The kingdom carried out 156 beheadings in 2007, compared to 40 in 2006, including for “crimes” such as witchcraft and apostasy. Migrant workers face discriminatory laws and practices.
  • The Saudi system of male legal guardianship denies women their fundamental rights. Women must obtain permission from their fathers, husbands, or even sons, acting as male guardians to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care, and access government agencies, such as when they seek protection or redress as victims of domestic violence.
  • Shi’a in the Eastern Province and Isma’ilis in Najran report official discrimination in employment, judicial affairs, religious practices and land grants.

Human Rights Watch called on President Sarkozy to urge King Abdullah to initiate bold human rights reforms, including:

  • issuing a moratorium on the death penalty, or at least restricting its applicability only to the most serious crimes, and never for juveniles;
  • issuing a penal code that does not criminalize protected human rights and provides serious consequences for officials complicit in acts of torture or ill-treatment;
  • issuing legislation that protects the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression, in line with international standards and best practices;
  • abolishing the sponsorship system for migrant workers;
  • abolishing the system of male legal guardianship over women and taking steps to facilitate women’s access to government services, including protection from domestic violence and the judiciary; and,
  • ending discrimination in all areas against religious minorities, especially Shi’a and Isma’ili citizens.

Background and Cases

Freedom of Association
On September 11, 2007, Abdullah al-Sharif, Abd al-Muhsin Hilal, Wajeha al-Huwaider, Zaki Abu al-Sa’ud, ‘Aql al-Bahili, and Fawzia al-‘Uyuni, on behalf of a larger group of Saudi citizens, presented a follow-up request to the minister of social affairs to officially register the National Saudi Committee for Human Rights, but received no reply. An initial request for registration was submitted in January 2003. Saudi security forces arrested several of the founding members in March 2004, after they publicly petitioned then-Crown Prince Abdullah for a constitution, among other demands. In September, Fawzia al-‘Uyuni, Wajeha al-Huwaidar, Ebtihal Mubarak and Haifa Usra, three of them women, announced the Society for Protecting and Defending Women’s Rights and submitted an online petition to King Abdullah with 1,100 supporters of women’s right to drive. The group received a private warning against holding any public demonstrations, and has not been granted official recognition. In August 2007, a group of concerned citizens wanted to form an organization tackling unemployment and supporting women joining the labor force, but the Ministry of Labor in January 2008 refused to give permission, claiming that similar organizations already existed.

Freedom of Assembly
On November 7, a court in Buraida sentenced ‘Isa and Abdullah al-Hamid, two leading reform advocates, to four and six months in prison for encouraging a public demonstration by the wives of security detainees in the country’s intelligence prisons. The wives claimed their husbands had not been charged or received a trial, despite being imprisoned for over two years. The government considers all public demonstrations illegal.

Freedom of Expression
While assembly and association appear to be altogether prohibited, public expression is possible, but only within shifting and unknown boundaries. On December 10, security forces arrested Fu’ad al-Farhan, a popular blogger, on unknown charges. Farhan had written critically about the arrest of nine reform advocates in February 2007. All but one remain in prison without charge, despite a maximum of six months of pre-trial detention provided for in the Saudi Criminal Procedure Code. In October, the government closed access to a website ( dedicated to discussing human rights and political reform, run by a political prisoner, Ali al-Dumaini, whom King Abdullah pardoned in August 2005. Ra’if Badawi, whose website on transgressions by the country’s religious police, was shut down earlier in 2007. In October, the secret police questioned Badawi about his contacts with Human Rights Watch. On December 13, the intelligence services arrested Muhanna al-Falih, a supporter of constitutional reform.

Torture and Impunity
The criminal justice system is biased against the defendant, but at the same time shields officials from being brought to justice. Torture of those arrested for crimes is common, especially by the criminal investigation department. Human Rights Watch has spoken to more than a dozen victims of abuse. A video posted on the internet in April 2007 confirmed prison abuse ( ; Badawi, who is a businessman and not a lawyer, voluntarily defends victims of religious police abuses. He has taken over the appeal of the family of a man the religious police beat to death, at least the third such case in 2007. A Riyadh court in December found two religious policemen not guilty of the murder of Salman al-Huraisi, despite forensic evidence of the cause of death and witness testimonies describing religious policemen beating al-Huraisi.

Death Penalty
Saudi Arabia continues to apply the death penalty for crimes such as witchcraft, drug use and trafficking, apostasy, and robbery, which are not among the most serious crimes for which the death penalty is still permissible under human rights law. At least 156 persons were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2007, up from 40 in the previous year. Saudi Arabia maintains the death penalty for children in blatant violation of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2007, Saudi Arabia executed one juvenile offender, Dhahian Rakan al-Sibai'I, for a murder he allegedly committed when he was just 15 years old. Authorities have sentenced to death girls who were as young as 13 at the time of the crime. At least one young woman, Rizana Nafeek, is currently awaiting execution for a crime committed as a child.

In November 2007, Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded an Egyptian man for apostasy after he had been found with a copy of the Quran in a washroom, an act considered to have “violat[ed] the boundaries set by God.” In February, four Sri Lankans accused of a string of robberies were executed and their bodies publicly crucified. They were unaware of their impending execution. In May, an Indonesian domestic worker in al-Qasim province was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for witchcraft, a reduction from an original sentence of death. The Indonesian embassy did not learn about the arrest, detention or trial of the worker until one month after the sentencing.

Migrant Workers
Migrant workers are subject to the Saudi sponsorship system which forces them to obtain their employers’ permission to leave the country or transfer employment. A recent reform allowing the Ministry of Labor to waive this requirement if the employer fails to pay three months of wages is insufficient to resolve these problems.

Dr. Abd al-Halim Yusif, a medical doctor, resigned in 2006 from working at a polyclinic because of professional differences with his sponsor and employer. Despite having found new employment within weeks, his old employer refused to issue a no-objection certificate, preventing Yusif from taking up his new job, and Yusif has also lost his claim to legal residency. His four children studying at Saudi colleges are thus unable to continue studying. His wife can also no longer work, as women are included in their spouse’s residency permits.

Seven members of a Saudi family who employed four Indonesian women as domestic workers beat them in early August 2007 after accusing them of practicing “black magic” on the family’s teenage son. Siti Tarwiyah Slamet, 32, and Susmiyati Abdul Fulan, 28, died from their injuries. Ruminih Surtim, 25, and Tari Tarsim, 27, received treatment in the intensive care unit of Riyadh Medical Complex, where police arrested them on charges of witchcraft shortly after they had been admitted to hospital.

Saudi Arabia’s institutionalized system of legal guardianship denies women basic rights of travel, access to justice, health care, and educational choices, among others. In November 2007, a court in Qatif in the Eastern Province more than doubled on appeal a sentence passed in October 2006 against a young woman and a young man, both of whom were raped by a gang of seven men. Their crime was that of “illegal seclusion,” because they had been in a car together and her male legal guardian was not present with them when they were attacked. King Abdullah cancelled their sentences in December.

Fatima al-‘Azzaz has been in prison and other detention facilities since a judge forcibly divorced her from her husband Mansur al-Timani in August 2005. Al-‘Azzaz’s half-brothers had initiated the suit which found that al-Timani’s non-tribal roots made him socially inadequate to marry al-‘Azzaz. Fearing a return to live with her half-brothers, who became her legal guardians in lieu of her now-divorced husband, al-‘Azzaz’s only option was to remain in detention, since women are prohibited to live alone and take care of their own affairs.

Shi’a Saudis
The governor of al-Ahsa region in the Eastern Province over the past years has detained without charge more than 150 Shi’a prayer leaders for short periods.

In June 2007, the Ministry of Education expelled a Shi’a schoolgirl from all educational facilities for insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, in violation of the country’s obligation to provide compulsory elementary education.

Also in al-Ahsa, Shi’ites were unable to celebrate their religious holiday of ‘Ashura freely in 2007. A religious opinion (fatwa) by the exclusively Sunni Permanent Committee for Academic Research and Religious Opinion of February 2000 sets Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as the only permissible religious holidays.

Shi’a Isma’ilis in Najran, a province on the border with Yemen, also report severe discrimination in employment, the judiciary, and land grants. In 2007, the Supreme Judicial Council rejected a retrial and upheld the death sentence for Hadi Al Mutif, an Isma’ili found guilty of apostasy for uttering two words in 1993 deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.