SAUDI ARABIA (2010-2011)

Urgent Appeal


Updated as of May 2011

In 2010-2011, no human rights NGO managed to obtain legal status. Furthermore, human rights activities continued to be controlled by a vague and draconian legal framework, making human rights defenders vulnerable to arbitrary detention and unfair trials. In addition, peaceful assemblies were banned de facto by the authorities and repressed by the security forces. Finally, the Ministry of Interior banned several human rights defenders from leaving the country.

Political context

In 2010-2011, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remained very worrying. In this absolute Islamic monarchy, the population cannot enjoy an area of freedom allowing the development of a civil society independent from the Government. Political parties and unions are banned and no independent human rights NGO was even registered. Demonstrations are prohibited and media are censored by the Ministry of Culture and Information. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory neither to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Since 2001, thousands of people have been arrested in the name of counter-terrorism, including people who have criticised the State without resorting to or advocating the use of violence1. The rights of people who are arrested or prosecuted are regularly flouted and torture and ill-treatment while in custody or prison are frequently used. The rights of women and migrants are notoriously violated, as well as the freedom of religion.

The Shia and the Ismailian Muslims living in Saudi Arabia make up 10 to 15 per cent of the Saudi population. They are the target of denominational discrimination that deprives them of their fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of religion and belief, as well as certain civil rights such as the right to hold positions of responsibility in the public services. Shia Muslims are regularly targeted for organising collective prayer meetings or celebrating Shia festivals2. In 2011, the authorities also repressed Shia activists for demonstrating in the eastern part of the country to demand the Saudi Government to withdraw the troops sent to Bahrain, where they are directing a military force from the Gulf States with the aim of helping the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain to suppress a strong popular protest movement calling for political reforms, including more freedoms and the release of political prisoners detained since the 1990s3.

Finally, sanctions were still imposed on the right to freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. On April 29, 2011, the Saudi authorities published a decree that imposed considerable restrictions on the freedom of the press. According to this text, media are forbidden to publish any material that contradicts the Sharia law, “serves foreign interests” or “undermines national security”. The terms of this decree, particularly vague and unclear, risk being used to justify censorship of any statement considered as critical of the authorities4.

An extremely restrictive legislative framework that prevent all human rights activities

In Saudi Arabia, human rights activities continued to be subjected to an extremely restrictive framework. Article 39 of the Saudi 1992 Basic Law of Government stipulates that “all acts that foster sedition or division or harm the state’s security and its public relations, shall be prohibited”. This vague definition permits criminalisation of the most basic rights such as the right to freedoms of expression, association or peaceful assembly. Furthermore, the absence of any written criminal code in Saudi Arabia strengthens the climate of insecurity in which human rights defenders are carrying out their work, insofar as there is no formal definition of what constitutes a crime, and no fixed punishment for a specific crime. In addition, Article 112 of the Code of Criminal Procedure allows the Minister of Interior to decide which offences and crimes are punishable by a prison sentence, without specifying its length. The executive power is therefore unlimited to punish any human rights activity.

In this context, no human rights NGO was registered. For example, the NGO Human Rights First Society, Saudi Arabia (HRFS) could never obtain a licence since its setting up in 2002. Similarly, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), set up in 2009, could neither obtain a licence.

Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly and repression of demonstrators

In spite of the absence of an official text which bans public meetings, in practice they are not tolerated and the Saudi authorities ban de facto the organisation of peaceful assemblies in the country5. Several demonstrations inspired by the movements in other Arab countries were organised between February and April 2011 to call for democratisation of political life or to demand the release of prisoners held arbitrarily in Saudi prisons. These protests were brutally dispersed and over 160 demonstrators were injured or arrested6. For example, on March 9, 2011, a demonstration organised in the city of al-Qatif to demand democratic reforms was brutally dispersed by the security forces who fired off on demonstrators with live bullets. Two of them were injured7. On March 21, 2011, Mr. Mohamed Saleh al-Bajadi, one of the founders of ACPRA, was arrested at his home in the town of Buraidah by agents of the intelligence services from the Ministry of Interior. Books, documents and laptop computers were confiscated at his home and his office. Mr. al-Bajadi had taken part in a protest the previous day in front of the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, to call for the release of persons held for years without being charged or tried. This demonstration had brought together dozens of men and women, mostly family members of detainees. Mr. al-Bajadi was held incommunicado for nearly three weeks, with no contact with his family or with a lawyer8. As of the end of April 2011, he was still being held by the intelligence services without being charged or tried9.

Arbitrary arrest of defenders of the rights of the Shia minority

In 2010-2011, several defenders who called for respect for the rights of the Shia minority were arrested and arbitrarily detained10. As an example, Mr. Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari, a writer and defender of minority rights, was arrested on June 15, 2010 and taken to the Khobar police station because of his stand in favour of the respect for the rights of the Shia minority. In July 2010, he was transferred to the Dammam prison. In April 2011, the Dammam Court rejected the initial charges of “annoying others” with his writings, used against him by the Public Prosecutor in his charge file. However, as of the end of April 2011, he was still being held at the Dammam prison11. In addition, at the end of 2010, Mr. Mounir Baqir al-Jessas, a blogger, was still being held by the Saudi authorities for having denounced, in various articles published on Internet, the discrimination to which Shia Muslims are subjected to in Saudi Arabia. Mr. al-Jessas had been arrested on November 8, 2009 by the intelligence services, who had searched his home and confiscated two laptop computers and a camera. He was finally released on February 20, 2011, without charge12. Also, on March 3 and 4, 2011, 24 people were arrested following demonstrations in the city of al-Qatif to protest against the continued detention of nine members of the Shia community who were arrested in 199613. The persons arrested included Messrs. Hussain al-Yousef and Hussain al-Alq, who regularly publish articles on to report on the arrests of members of the Shia community and on the discrimination they are victim of. The 24 men were released without charge on March 8, 2011, after guaranteeing in writing that they will not demonstrate any more14.

Obstacles to the freedom of movement of several human rights defenders

In 2010, the Saudi Ministry of Interior banned several human rights defenders from leaving the country. For instance, on February 12 and March 2, 2010 respectively, the Saudi authorities informed Mr. Fahd al-Orani, a member of ACPRA, and Mr. Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi that they were forbidden to travel as they were at Riyadh international airport. Similarly, in 2010 and 2011, Mr. Abdullah al-Hamed and Mr. Mehna Mohammed al-Faleh, members of the same organisation, were still forbidden to leave the country, under the ban in place since 2004. These human rights defenders were given no reason for these measures15.

1 See Human Rights First Society, Saudi Arabia (HRFS) News Bulletin, April 9, 2011.

2 The majority of Shia Muslims live in the eastern province of the country, in al-Ahsa province and the cities of Qatif, Dammam and Khobar. Shia Muslims are also in majority in the region of Najran, in the south of the Kingdom. In towns where Shia Muslims constitute less than 50% of the population, Shia mosques are, with a few exceptions, forcibly shut down. See HRFS 2010 Report, Unholy Trespass, December 2010.

3 See HRFS Press Release, March 23, 2011.

4 See HRFS and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Release, May 3, 2011.

5 On March 5, 2011, the Ministry of Interior issued an announcement confirming the ban on demonstrations in the Kingdom, according to which the security forces would take “all necessary measures” against those who attempt to disturb public order. On March 6, 2011, the Council of Superior Ulema (religious scholars) also recalled the ban on demonstrations in the country. On the same day, the Shura Council (a consultative council appointed by the King) stressed the importance of preserving the security of the Kingdom and ignoring misleading calls for the organisation of demonstrations, sit-ins and marches. See Amnesty International Press Release, March 25, 2011.

6 See Press Release from HRFS, March 27, 2011 and Human Rights Watch (HRW), April 20, 2011.

7 See HRFS Press Releases, March 10 and 11, 2011.

8 He was able to telephone his wife for the first time on April 7, 2011.

9 See HRFS Press Release, March 23, 2011.

10 See HFRS 2010 Report, Unholy Trespass, December 2010 and HRW Report, Looser Rein, Uncertain Gain, September 27, 2010.

11 See HFRS 2010 Report, Unholy Trespass, December 2010.

12 See HRFS Press Release, June 28, 2010.

13 These men are suspected of being linked to an attack in 1996 against the Khobar Towers residential complex in the city of al-Khobar (Eastern Province), that caused the death of 19 American servicemen and one Saudi.

14 See HRFS Press Releases, March 3, 5 and 14, 2011.

15 See ACPRA Press Releases, November 3 and December 15, 2010.

Extracts from the Annual Report 2011 of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT)

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