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Correction: On January 21, 2013 a Saudi higher court decided not to charge website editor Raif Badawi with apostasy. The pending charges against Badawi include “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, which does not carry the death penalty.

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters during 2012, and sentenced activists from across the country to prison for expressing critical political and religious views, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.

Thousands of people are in arbitrary detention, and human rights activists were put on trial on politicized charges. The Ministry of Interior forbids public protests. Since 2011, security forces have killed at least 14 protesters in the Eastern province who were seeking political reforms.

“The Saudi government has gone to considerable lengths to punish, intimidate, and harass those who express opinions that deviate from the official line,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These efforts have fueled rather than silenced the growing domestic calls for greater freedoms.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply gives way to authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

Among those imprisoned in Saudi Arabia during 2012 for exercising their right to free speech is the human rights activist Mohammed al-Bejadi, who is serving a four-year sentence in Riyadh for charges that include “setting up a human rights organization.” Ra’if Badawi, editor of a liberal website established to encourage debate on religious issues, has been detained since June and could face the death penalty for apostasy. In December, authorities arrested Turki al-Hamad, a prominent author known for his critical views, after he published a series of tweets calling for reform of Islamist teachings.

Saudi Arabia remains one of just three countries worldwide that continue to sentence child offenders to death. In early January 2013, authorities executed Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, for a murder she allegedly committed when she was 17 years old, despite serious flaws in her trial.

The government passed limited reforms on women’s rights in 2012. The Labor Ministry issued four decrees waiving the requirement of a male guardian’s permission for women who work in clothing stores, amusement parks, food preparation, and as cashiers. However, the decrees reinforced strict sex segregation in the workplace, forbidding female workers from interacting    with men. Saudi schools provide no physical education for girls, and authorities allow no team sports for women. However, authorities allowed women to compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and two women participated.

The country’s guardianship system requires women to obtain permission from male relatives to travel and conduct official business with the administration, among other activities.

Saudi Arabia has no penal code, which gives prosecutors and judges wide discretion to define criminal offenses. Lawyers are not generally allowed to assist suspects during interrogation, and face obstacles to examining witnesses or presenting evidence at trial. Authorities have used specialized criminal courts, set up to try terrorism cases, to prosecute a growing number of peaceful dissidents on politicized charges.

Saudi Arabia should urgently enact a penal code that limits punishable offenses to those that are recognizable under international norms, Human Rights Watch said. This would eliminate    prosecutions on charges that judges define at their own discretion, and that have in recent years included offenses such as “witchcraft” and “disobedience of parents.”

Saudi laws also violate or fail to protect the rights of migrant workers.

“Women, migrant workers, and dissidents were among those who pay the price for Saudi Arabia’s arbitrary judicial system and its repressive laws,” Goldstein said.

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