(Beirut) – Newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should use his authority to end longstanding abuses against Saudi dissidents and rights activists and to make a public commitment for rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today. The succession move follows a royal decree issued on June 17, 2017, that removed the country’s notorious prosecution service from the Interior Ministry and turned it into an independent agency.

Then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony at King Faisal Air College in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

On June 21, King Salman removed Mohammed bin Nayef as interior minister and crown prince, and appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the new crown prince. Under Mohammed Bin Nayef, who oversaw Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism response after 2003, the Interior Ministry waged a campaign of repression against peaceful Saudi dissidents and continued to impose burdensome travel restrictions on Saudi women. The new interior minister is Mohammed bin Nayef’s 33-year-old nephew, Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef.

“Saudi Arabia should go beyond portfolio shuffling and ensure that leadership changes bring meaningful steps to end the repression so many Saudi men and women have suffered over the years,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If the new crown prince wants to achieve his vision for economic progress, he should take immediate and concrete steps to improve human rights protections.”

The new crown prince, who has been deputy crown prince since April 2015 and defense minister since January 2015, has not made a commitment to carry out rights reforms. His ambitious 2016 plan, Vision 2030, to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy, failed to incorporate important human rights reforms, like strengthening women’s ability to participate in the labor market.

As defense minister, he initiated and is responsible for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The coalition of eight countries taking part in the campaign has carried out scores of apparently unlawful attacks, including potential war crimes, and repeatedly hit schools, markets, homes, and hospitals. The war has also contributed to a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, where seven million people are on the brink of famine and thousands are suffering from cholera. In his new role as crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman should ensure that Saudi forces in Yemen comply with the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

The country’s new interior minister will take the helm of a ministry that for years has taken the lead in violating basic rights in Saudi Arabia, like free expression, association, and assembly. The ministry is also responsible for imposing certain aspects of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, under which every woman must have a male guardian – a father, brother, husband, or even a son – who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. Interior Ministry regulations require a woman to obtain her male guardian’s approval to get a passport or travel outside the country, and Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving is based on an Interior Ministry decree.

The new interior minister will lack the power to directly prosecute government critics, though. On June 17, King Salman ordered the removal of the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP) from Interior Ministry jurisdiction and renamed the newly independent agency the Public Prosecution. The royal decree stated that the change was “in [accordance] with the rules and principles of many countries of the world,” and based on “the necessity of separation between executive authority in the state and the bureau and its work since it is part of the judicial authority.”

The new interior minister would apparently maintain his wide counterterrorism powers under the country’s 2013 counterterrorism law. The law authorizes the minister to order arrests of terrorism suspects without going through the prosecutors, as well as to gain access to a suspect’s private banking and communications information, all without judicial oversight.

Since 2011, the BIP has initiated criminal cases against at least 20 prominent activists and dissidents. Courts sentenced them to prison terms as long as 10 or 15 years on broad, catch-all charges that do not constitute recognizable crimes such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “participating in protests.” Prosecutors have also jailed and investigated women for driving and calling for an end to the male guardianship system.

Saudi authorities have arrested and prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which a Saudi court formally dissolved and banned in March 2013. The members faced similar vague charges.

Saudi activists and dissidents currently serving long prison terms based solely on their peaceful activism include Waleed Abu al-Khair, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Abdullah al-Hamid, Fadhil al-Manasif, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, Abdulkareem al-Khodr, Fowzan al-Harbi, Saleh al-Ashwan, Abdulrahman al-Hamid, Zuhair Kutbi, Nadhir al-Majid, and Alaa Brinji. Issa al-Nukheifi, arrested in December 2016, is currently on trial. Essam Koshak was detained in January and may face trial. Others, including Abdulaziz al-Shubaily and Issa al-Hamid, are free while appealing long sentences handed down by the Specialized Criminal Court in 2016. Mohammed al-Oteibi and Abdullah Attawi are on trial for forming a human rights organization in 2013.

Saudi Arabia’s reshuffled prosecution service should immediately end prosecutions of human rights activists such as Koshak and al-Oteibi, and release those serving long jail terms, Human Rights Watch said.

“Saudi leaders should realize that they can’t transform the country’s economy and society without granting women rights on par with men and allowing Saudis to openly criticize government policies and call for human rights,” Whitson said.