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Saudi Arabia: Free Jailed Reformists

Arrests, Prosecutions of Activists

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should release human rights activists and other advocates of political and social change jailed in 2013 solely for their peaceful activism and end prosecutions of others, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2014.

Saudi Arabia in 2013 convicted eight prominent human rights activists – including Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, and Mikhlif al-Shammari – on broad, catch-all charges, such as “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom,” “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” and “setting up an unlicensed organization.” Saudi courts are currently trying others, including the human rights activists Fadhel al-Manasif and Waleed Abu al-Khair, on similar charges, and authorities have harassed and placed travel bans on dozens more. 

“Saudi authorities displayed their growing intolerance toward citizens who spoke out for reform in 2013,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “If the government wants to improve its stance on human rights, releasing activists from prison would be a good place to start.”

In the 667-page world report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.  

Saudi officials in 2013 refused to register political and human rights groups, leaving members subject to prosecution for “setting up an unregistered organization.” In August, an appeals court upheld the Social Affairs Ministry’s denial of registration to the Eastern Province-based Adala Center for Human Rights. As part of the March conviction of al-Qahtani and al-Hamid, a Riyadh Criminal Court judge ordered the dissolution of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) and seizure of its assets.

Under the guardianship system, girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. Authorities passed a law criminalizing domestic abuse for the first time, but the law does not detail enforcement mechanisms.

After a seven-month “grace period” for foreign workers to regularize their status, authorities on November 4 raided businesses and set up checkpoints across the country to apprehend workers who lacked required documentation or who were not working for their legal sponsors.

Authorities announced on December 1 that 110,000 workers had been expelled in the first month of the campaign. Some workers reported violent assaultsby Saudi citizens and security forces, as well as overcrowding and ill-treatment in detention centers.

Despite criticisms of its 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 record of repression and its broken promises on human rights raise serious questions about its fitness for membership on the Human Rights Council,” Stork said. “Saudi Arabia should free imprisoned activists and take other concrete, visible steps to show the government is willing to improve its abysmal rights record.”

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