Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia: Race Must Not Whitewash Dire Human Rights Situation

Press release
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While the next Dakar Rally, a famous off-road vehicle race, will take place from 5 to 17 January in Saudi Arabia, the FIDH and its three French, Gulf, and Saudi member organisations: the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH), the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and ALQST, are concerned that the media coverage of the event will be used to conceal the country’s calamitous human rights record. The four organisations therefore call on the organisers of the rally and the competitors to use this opportunity to put pressure on the Saudi authorities to free Saudi women’s rights activists and other human rights defenders, and to drop all charges against them.

Read our report on the situation of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia

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In recent years, alongside its “Vision 2030” programme aiming to modernise and economically reform the country, Saudi Arabia has pulled out all the stops on an extensive public relations campaign to repair its reputation, tarnished by its fierce repression of dissent and its actions in Yemen. A central element of this image rehabilitation involves purchasing and funding cultural and sporting events. Since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, such efforts have accelerated. France, a strategic diplomatic and military partner, is a prime target in this strategy of purchasing events and setting up partnerships.

The vast resources deployed by the Saudi regime must not make us forget the disastrous human rights situation in the country, which should be spoken of during the Dakar Rally

For example, the country continues to widely apply the death penalty (with more than 180 executions in 2020; 150 in 2019). On 23 April 2019, two days before the press conference held in Al-Qiddiya to announce the programme of the Dakar Rally, 37 prisoners were executed, including those arrested as minors. The majority were Shia Muslims, a disenfranchised minority in the Kingdom. On 2 January 2016, a previous collective execution claimed the lives of 47 victims. The execution methods are particularly brutal: decapitation, crucifixion, and, for adultery, stoning to death.

The situation of dissidents, activists and journalists remains critical, with emblematic human rights defenders currently serving prison sentences ranging from six to 30 years. While the murder of prominent journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 shocked the world, his was far from the sole enforced disappearance; despite an unprecedented wave of international outrage, enforced disappearances continued, including those of journalist Marwan Al-Muraisy, religious leader Sulaiman Al-Dowaish, and humanitarian worker Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan. The latest wave of arrests, in November 2019, targeted intellectuals and journalists.

The situation of those who had fought for the respect of women’s rights is still very worrying. Between May and July 2018, a wave of arrests targeted the leaders of the protest. Among them was Loujain Al-Hathloul, famous for campaigning for women’s right to drive. Some, including Loujain, were tortured while in detention and are still in prison. Between March and April 2019, a new wave of arrests targeted 14 of their supporters.

More generally, the legislative and regulatory frameworks remain very conservative and repressive, especially for women, with the male guardianship system rendering them minors for life. These frameworks are used to harass, prosecute and convict people who try to peacefully exercise their rights to express themselves or associate freely. For example, the strengthening of the anti-terrorism legislative arsenal in 2017 has been used mainly to target peaceful activists. Lastly, minorities, including the Shia, migrant workers and stateless persons, continue to be subjected to discriminatory treatment.

Externally, the growing interventionism of the Saudi Kingdom had had serious consequences, particularly in Yemen, which the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition is suspected of war crimes in the conflict, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2015. Yet France continues to sell weapons and military equipment to the coalition. In April 2018, FIDH and the Arms Observatory (OBSARM) published a report revealing “indicators of presence” of military equipment in the country.

Finally, this interventionism was also deployed in international organisations. In 2017, FIDH published a report showing how Riyadh was trying to undermine, once again thanks to its funding, the United Nations human rights system.

Faced with such a calamitous record, detailed in the attached press kit, our organisations ask in particular:
 That the organisers of the Rally, competitors, and official broadcasters publicly bring up the human rights situation, and pressure Saudi authorities to free the country’s human rights defenders and drop charges against them, including women detained for exercising their fundamental rights in protesting for the right to drive.
 Urging the Saudi authorities to drop all charges against Saudi human rights defenders and immediately and unconditionally release all those – including women activists – detained for simply exercising their fundamental freedoms.

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