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(Beirut) – Saudi authorities under King Salman carried out women’s rights and labor reforms during 2015 but did not release dozens of peaceful activists and dissidents serving long prison terms, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

Saudi authorities carried out cruel punishments in 2015, including the public flogging of a blogger, Raif Badawi, in January. Saudi courts also confirmed death sentences for Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet accused of apostasy, and Ali al-Nimr, a Saudi man convicted of crimes related to 2011 protests allegedly committed when he was a child. Neither has been executed.

Yemeni workers being deported through Saudi Arabia’s al-Tuwal border gate with Yemen, November 17, 2013.   © 2013 REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

“Saudi Arabia made positive changes for women and foreign workers in 2015, but these steps were overshadowed by its continued use of cruel punishments such as flogging and beheading,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should reform its justice system and halt these ghastly punishments.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition, with support from the United States, conducted a bombing campaign and blockade in Yemen that resulted in many apparent violations of the laws of war.

Saudi Arabia represses activists seeking reform and peaceful dissidents. In 2015, over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving lengthy prison sentences.

Saudi Arabia dramatically increased its use of capital punishment in 2015, executing 152 people between January and early December, primarily for murder and drug offenses.

In October, labor officials issued directives introducing or raising fines for employers who violate labor regulations. These include prohibitions on confiscating migrant workers’ passports, failing to pay salaries on time, and failing to provide copies of contracts to employees.

In December, the Saudi cabinet announced the approval of a new law permitting the establishment of nongovernmental organizations for the first time.

In August, Saudi authorities said that for the first time it would allow women to be candidates for and to vote in December municipal elections. And in early December, authorities announced that divorced and widowed women could obtain family identification cards for their children, making it easier for them to register children in school and access health care and other services.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or enrolling in higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son.

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

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