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10 Questions the Saudi Crown Prince Needs to Answer

World Leaders, Journalists Should Demand Accounting for Rights Abuses


(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s admission that government representatives killed Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate on October 2, 2018 has sparked intensified and overdue scrutiny of the country’s human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today. Foreign government officials should demand that Saudi Arabia account for human rights abuses.

“Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder wasn’t just a mission gone wrong, but rather the result of Saudi Arabia’s wanton disregard for human rights and belief that the rule of law doesn’t apply to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and its other leaders,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The world should seize this opportunity to demand an end to and justice for Saudi Arabia’s serious rights abuses and harmful practices, many of which have been going on for decades.” 

Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends a bilateral meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the Executive Suite at UN Headquarters in New York. © 2018 Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

10 questions:

  1. Why does the Saudi-led coalition carrying out military operations in Yemen continue to conduct unlawful attacks and fail to properly investigate and provide civilian victims redress?

Saudi Arabia leads the military coalition that began operations in Yemen against the Houthi armed group, who had taken control of much of the country, in March 2015. The Saudi-led coalition has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law, including apparent war crimes, and has failed to carry out meaningful and impartial investigations into alleged violations. The work of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), established by the coalition in 2016, has fallen far short of international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence. As of September 2018, the unit had cleared the coalition of wrongdoing in the vast majority of airstrikes investigated. While JIAT has recommended in a handful of strikes that the coalition provide “assistance” or take “appropriate action,” Human Rights Watch is unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process or to hold individuals accountable for possible war crimes. 

People are seen near a bus destroyed by an airstrike that killed dozens of children, in a photograph taken on August 12, 2018 in Saada, Yemen. © 2018 Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
  1. Why did Saudi Arabia lock up prominent women’s rights advocates and when will it release them?

In May, as Saudi authorities prepared to lift the ban on women driving on June 24, the government initiated a large-scale coordinated crackdown against the women’s rights movement. Authorities arrested at least 13 prominent women’s rights activists and accused several of them of serious crimes based on their peaceful activism. Government-aligned media outlets carried out a campaign against them, branding them “traitors.” At least nine women remain detained without charge, though some anticipated charges could carry prison terms of up to 20 years. The nine are: Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Mayaa al-Zahrani, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassema al-Sadah, and Amal al-Harbi.  

Former US First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pose with Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia as she receives the 2012 International Women of Courage Award during a ceremony at the US State Department in Washington, DC, on March 8, 2012.  © 2012 Getty Images
  1. Why does Saudi Arabia target peaceful dissidents and activists abroad?

Prior to Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi authorities had a history of targeting dissidents and activists outside the country. Most recently, according to media reports, in March, security agents stopped Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent activist, in the UAE, where she was studying, and quickly whisked her away to a plane that took her back to Riyadh. Agents returned her then-husband, Fahad al-Butairi, from Jordan under similar circumstances. Both Amnesty International and Saudi activists in Canada and the United Kingdom say that Saudi Arabia has targeted them with malicious spyware. Saudi authorities have also used their influence to force women fleeing their families to return to Saudi Arabia against their will. This includes widely reported cases such as that of Dina Ali, who was returned back in April 2017 while she was in transit in the Philippines. 

Video screengrab of Lujain al-Hathloul driving her car. © Screengrab from Youtube
  1. Why did the Saudi authorities detain over 300 princes, businessmen, and government officials beginning in November 2017, many of them at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, apparently outside of any clear legal process?

In early November 2017, Saudi authorities detained 381 people on corruption allegations, among them prominent princes, business executives, and high-level government officials. The authorities held many in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton Hotel and demanded, outside any recognizable legal process in which detainees could adequately defend themselves, that they turn over assets in exchange for their freedom. According to a Saudi government statement, only 56 refused to settle and remained in custody – they will most likely face criminal charges. In March, the New York Times reported that Saudi authorities had used “coercion and abuse to seize billions,” and that “as many as 17 detainees required medical treatment for abuse by their captors.”

  1. Why do women still need permission from a male relative to obtain a passport or leave the country?

Despite positive reforms in recent years, Saudi Arabia has not eliminated the male guardianship system. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or being released from prison without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. The government also does not sanction people or business, including individual employers or hospitals, if they continue to require guardian permission for women to work or access health care.

  1. Why are activists like Raif Badawi, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Mohammad al-Qahtani serving prison sentences of over 10 years for peaceful activism?

Saudi authorities regularly pursue criminal charges against human rights activists based on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, in violation of international human rights obligations. Since 2014, Saudi authorities have put a series of dissidents on trial for peaceful activism in the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, which has sentenced some of them to prison terms of 10 years or more. The authorities have prosecuted nearly all activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), one of the country’s first civic organizations, which called for broad political reform in interpretations of Islamic law. 

Saudi human rights activists gather outside the Criminal Court of Riyadh following a hearing in the trial of fellow activists Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani. Sulaiman al-Rashoodi (second from right), Mohammed al-Qahtani (third from right), Waleed Abu al-Khair (center, fourth from right) and Abdullah al-Hamid (fifth from right). © 2013 Private.
  1. Why does Saudi Arabia sometimes hold criminal suspects in pretrial detention for months and even years without charge or trial?

Saudi Arabia has been detaining thousands of people for more than six months, and has been holding some for more than a decade, without referring them to courts for criminal proceedings. In April, Human Rights Watch analyzed data from a public online Interior Ministry database, which revealed that authorities had been holding 2,305 people who were under investigation for more than six months without referring them to a judge, 1,875 of them for more than a year, and 251 for more than three years. 

  1. Why is criticizing King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman criminalized as “terrorism” in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia’s 2017 counterterrorism law includes vague and overly broad definitions of acts of terrorism, in some cases punishable by death. It includes criminal penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison for portraying the king or crown prince, directly or indirectly, “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute,” and criminalizes a wide range of peaceful acts that bear no relation to terrorism.

  1. Why does Saudi Arabia execute people for crimes that are not considered the most serious under international law?

Saudi Arabia has executed over 650 people since the beginning of 2014, over 200 of them for nonviolent drug crimes. International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that the death penalty should not be used to punish drug-related offenses. In 2018, Saudi authorities began seeking the death penalty against dissidents in trials that did not include accusations of violence, including for supporting protests and alleged affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood

A photograph released by Israa al-Ghomgham’s supporters showing her as a young girl. This is the only photo available of her.  Twitter
  1. Why does Saudi Arabia not allow public practice of any religion other than Islam and heavily discriminate against its Shia Muslim community? 

Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and 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 and Sufi interpretations, versions, and understandings of Islam in public statements and documents. Dozens of Saudi Shia remain in prison, merely for participating in protests since 2011 calling for full equality and basic rights for all Saudis. Prosecutors recently filed charges and requested the death penalty against five Eastern Province activists, including female human rights activist Israa al-Ghomgham. 

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