A Saudi man explores a website on his laptop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 11, 2014.

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities sentenced several leading human rights activists and other reform advocates to lengthy jail terms in 2014 for their peaceful activism, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015.

Saudi Arabia imprisoned the activists on broad, catch-all charges designed to criminalize peaceful dissent, such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “setting up an unlicensed organization,” and vague provisions of a 2007 law on cybercrime law. The activists included Waleed Abu al-Khair and Fadhil al-Manasif, both sentenced mid-year to 15-year jail terms for their peaceful human rights work, and Fowzan al-Harbi, whose sentence an appeals court increased to 10 years in November 2014.

“Saudi authorities displayed intolerance toward citizens who spoke out for human rights and reform in 2014,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The government should release peaceful activists and dissidents from their long prison terms.”

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

Saudi authorities promulgated a new counterterrorism law in January that contains serious flaws. Its vague and overly broad provisions allow authorities to criminalize free expression.

Authorities arrest and detain suspects for months and sometimes years without judicial review or prosecution. On May 15, an Interior Ministry database showed that criminal justice officials were holding 293 individuals whose pretrial detention exceeded six months without referring their cases to the judiciary.

In September, a Human Rights Watch analysis of four trials before the Specialized Criminal Court of Shia who protested discrimination in the majority-Sunni country revealed serious due process concerns. These include broadly framed charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes and summary dismissal without investigation of the defendants’ allegations of torture.

Under Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son.

Police and labor authorities are carrying out a vigorous campaign to arrest and deport thousands of foreign workers found to be violating labor laws. The campaign targets workers who do not have valid residency or work permits, or those found working for an employer other than the person’s legal sponsor.

“Saudi Arabia should free imprisoned activists and take other concrete, visible steps to show the government is willing to improve its abysmal rights record,” Whitson said.