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(Beirut) – Activists in Saudi Arabia face a repressive and intolerant government as they advocate popular political participation, judicial reform, and an end to discrimination against women and minorities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Authorities have responded by arresting, prosecuting, and attempting to silence rights defenders and to quash their calls for change.

The 48-page report, “Challenging the Red Lines: Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia,” presents the stories of 11 prominent Saudi social and political rights activists and their struggles to resist government efforts to suppress them. The activists have used new media, including news websites and blogs, and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, to build relationships with one another, discuss ideas and strategies for change, and develop public platforms to disseminate their reform message.

“Saudi activists are using new media to take their government to task for rampant rights abuses,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi authorities think they can use intimidation and prison terms to stop the criticism, but the activists are finding ways to voice their concerns until they are heard.”

Several activists have used social media and online forums to build networks and initiate digital campaigns. Tens of thousands of Saudi citizens have already participated in online campaigns, including the “Women2Drive” initiative, which encourages Saudi women to drive in defiance of the government ban.

A number of recently established, mostly Internet-based nongovernmental human rights organizations regularly issue statements on individual cases of human rights abuses. Despite the authorities’ efforts to block online content, Saudis – at least 49 percent of whom have Internet access – use Internet forums to bypass heavily censored state media.

The 2011 uprisings across the Middle East encouraged Saudi activists to move beyond online campaigning and organize small street demonstrations and sit-ins. In Riyadh and Buraydah, families of people detained for years without charge held demonstrations outside Interior Ministry offices and detention facilities, calling on authorities either to release their family members or to bring them to trial.

In the eastern cities of Qatif and Awammiyah, demonstrators called for religious freedom and an end to institutionalized discrimination against the country’s Shia minority. Activists across the country opened campaigns for gender equality, inviting women to defy discriminatory practices imposed by Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Political and religious figures circulated petitions to King Abdullah calling for him to initiate judicial reforms and release political detainees.

This activism has come in the face of the Saudi government’s redoubled efforts since early 2011 to silence and intimidate human rights and other activists by issuing travel bans, terminating their employment, carrying out smear campaigns, and detaining and prosecuting them. The Interior Ministry arrests independent activists and sometimes holds them for months without charge.

Saudi police and judicial authorities have harassed and jailed Saudi rights activists such as Samar Badawi, who challenged restrictive aspects of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.

Authorities have refused to license new human rights organizations, and then sentenced their founders to lengthy prison terms for “setting up an unlicensed organization.” Saudi judicial authorities have tried, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms prominent activists, including Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, and Mikhlif al-Shammari, solely on account of their peaceful pro-reform activism. They were charged with arbitrary “crimes” that violate their right to free expression and association, such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”

A Jeddah lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and an Eastern Province activist, Fadhil al-Manasif, are on trial on charges including “insulting the judiciary,” “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom,” and “inciting public opinion against the state.”

The Interior Ministry has enforced its longstanding ban on all public protests and sit-ins, but activists organized marches and protests in Qatif and Awamiyyah in 2011 and family members of security detainees held small sit-ins in Buraydah and Riyadh in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, leaving judges free to issue sentences based on their own interpretations of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, the two agreed-upon sources of Islamic Sharia law. Defendants accused of political offenses – including human rights activists – are often sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court, set up to try terrorism-related cases. This court sometimes denies defendants the most basic fair trial guarantees, including the right to a lawyer, and passes sentences in closed proceedings.

In addition to trials on arbitrary charges, the Interior Ministry regularly bans activists from foreign travel for extended periods without providing advance notification or specifying reasons. Activists such as al-Khair discovered they were banned from travel only as they attempted to board a flight.

In spite of this repression, Saudi activists have been challenging the authorities, risking their freedom and livelihoods to push for genuine reform and respect for human rights.

Saudi Arabia should immediately halt its campaign against peaceful activists and release all those held on charges and convictions stemming entirely from their peaceful exercise of their rights to free expression, association, and belief, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities should also enact major judicial reforms such as:

  • issuing a written penal code consistent with human rights standards that does not criminalize freedom of expression and association;
  • issuing an associations law that allows independent organizations to form and operate without undue government interference;
  • abolishing all laws and regulations that disproportionately interfere with free expression, including restrictions on electronic networks.

Despite criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, United Nations member countries elected Saudi Arabia to a three-year term on the Human Rights Council in November.

“Saudi Arabia’s recent election to the UN Human Rights Council sends the wrong message to local activists facing government sanction for their peaceful human rights work,” Stork said. “Other countries should tell Saudi Arabia that it needs to improve its rights record, especially by letting independent activists work without government interference.”

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