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Saudi Arabia: Repression Overshadows Women’s Reforms

Unlawful Attacks in Yemen; Discrimination Against Women, Religious Minorities

Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Sanaa on August 25, 2017, killing at least 16 civilians, including seven children, and wounding another 17, including eight children. After an international outcry, the coalition admitted to carrying out the attack, but provided no details on the coalition members involved in the attack.  © 2017 Mohammed al-Mekhlafi

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia announced reforms during 2017 to enhance women’s rights, including ending a driving ban, but stepped up arrests and prosecutions of activists seeking reform or voicing peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018.

As the leader of the eight-nation coalition that began military operations against the Houthis and forces loyal to the now deceased former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch has documented 87 unlawful attacks by the coalition, some of which may amount to war crimes, that killed nearly 1,000 civilians, and hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques.

“Mohammad bin Salman’s well-funded image as a reformist falls flat in the face of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe and scores of activists and political dissidents languishing in Saudi prisons on spurious charges,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Baby steps on women’s rights reforms don’t paper over Saudi Arabia’s systemic abuses.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

In 2017, more than a dozen prominent activists convicted on vague charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving lengthy prison sentences. Others faced trial for similar offenses.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and ordered the expulsion of Qatari citizens and the return of their citizens from Qatar.

In mid-September, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of people, including prominent clerics and intellectuals, in what appeared to be a coordinated crackdown on dissent. On November 4, Saudi authorities initiated a mass arrest of princes, current and former government officials, and prominent businessmen over corruption allegations. Some of them were held in a five-star hotel in Riyadh and forced to turn over their assets, outside of any legal process in exchange for their release, news media reported.

Saudi Arabia executed 133 people between January and early December 2017. Of the executions, 57 were for nonviolent drug smuggling. Under international human rights law, countries should only execute people for the “most serious offenses.”

Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam. The government systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment. Government-affiliated religious authorities disparage Shia Islam in public statements and documents despite Mohammad bin Salman’s pledge that Saudi Arabia would return to a more “moderate Islam.”

Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government reforms in 2017 that banned imposition of “unofficial” male guardianship restrictions. Under this system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian – usually a husband, father, brother, or son – to travel, marry, or be released from prison. They may be required to provide guardian consent to get a job or health care. Women regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims. In September, the authorities announced they are to lift the driving ban for women in June 2018, but some women’s rights activists said the authorities warned them not to comment on this announcement.

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

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