The authorities used a wide range of repressive measures to suppress freedom of expression and other legitimate activities. Hundreds of people were arrested as suspected terrorists. Thousands of others arrested in the name of security in previous years remained in jail; they included prisoners of conscience. Some 330 security suspects received unfair trials before a newly constituted but closed specialized court; one was sentenced to death and 323 were sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
Women continued to face severe discrimination in law and practice, despite some signs of reform. The state did little to tackle widespread violence against women, particularly against domestic workers. Shi’a Muslims and others were targeted for practising their faith. The rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers were violated. The administration of justice remained shrouded in secrecy and was summary in nature. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were systematic and carried out with impunity. Sentences of flogging were regularly imposed. The death penalty was used extensively. At least 69 people were executed, including two juvenile offenders.
In February, during the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Universal Periodic Review of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the government undertook to introduce various reforms while asserting that the country’s laws were based on religious concepts. In May, Saudi Arabia was re-elected to the UNHRC.
In February, for the first time a woman was appointed to be a deputy minister in the government, and the Supreme Court began to function as the highest court of appeal as provided for under the 2007 Law of the Judiciary. The Courts of Cassation were also replaced by courts of appeal.
In July, the government introduced the country’s first law against human trafficking, said to be a significant problem; those convicted of trafficking face up to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
Attacks by members or supporters of al-Qa’ida were reported. In August, the Deputy Interior Minister was reported to have been wounded in an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber. In October, the Interior Ministry said two men had been killed in a clash with security forces and militants in Jizan province and that six Yemeni nationals had been arrested.
In the last months of 2009, the conflict in Yemen’s Sa’da region spilled over into Saudi Arabia and several Saudi Arabian soldiers were reported to have been killed by Yemeni rebel fighters. Saudi Arabian jets attacked the Yemeni rebels; it was unclear whether the authorities took adequate precautions to protect civilians from such attacks. The government sought to close the border to refugees fleeing from the conflict. Those who crossed from Sa’da were forcibly returned to Yemen.
Counter-terror and security
The authorities used a range of repressive measures in the name of countering terrorism, undermining embryonic legal reforms. Vague and broadly written anti-terrorism laws were used to suppress freedom of expression and other legitimate activities. The security forces failed to respect even these laws, knowing they could act with impunity.
Hundreds of people were detained on security grounds in 2009, adding to the thousands arrested in previous years; all were held in virtual secrecy. Many were suspected supporters of Islamist groups. Typically, such detainees are held without charge or trial for months or years for investigation and interrogation, and without any means of challenging their detention. Most are held without access to lawyers and some are not permitted to see or communicate with their families for months or years. They are held in prisons where torture and other ill-treatment are rife and used to obtain self-incriminating “confessions”. If charged, they face grossly unfair trials, conducted in secret and without defence lawyers and in which defendants are questioned briefly by a three-man panel about their “confessions”. Sentences range from death to flogging and terms of imprisonment. Some of those imprisoned are held beyond the expiry of their sentence. Others are held for indefinite periods for “re-education”.
- In July, the government announced that 330 accused had been tried before a newly constituted specialized criminal court. Three were acquitted while 323 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 30 years, one was sentenced to death and three were banned from travelling abroad. Some of the 323 were said to have received additional punishments of fines or forced residence; others would be released only after “repenting”. No details of the charges were disclosed or of the evidence on which defendants had been convicted, and no information was given about hundreds of others scheduled to be tried before the same court.
Prisoners of conscience
The authorities continued to detain peaceful government critics and human rights activists, including some arrested in previous years. They were prisoners of conscience.
- Seven men arrested in February 2007 in connection with a petition calling for detainees to be given fair trials or released and advocating the establishment of a human rights organization, continued to be detained without trial throughout 2009. They were held in solitary confinement at Dhahban prison. The Interior Ministry accused the seven – Al-Sharif Saif al-Ghalib, Dr Saud al-Hashimi, Abdel Rahman Khan, Musa al-Qirni, Fahd al-Qirshi, Sulieman al-Rushudi and Abdel Rahman al-Shumayri – of collecting money to fund terrorism, but they strongly denied this. In October, the Court of Grievances heard an appeal against the detention of Abdel Rahman al-Shumayri. In December, the Interior Ministry said that it was preparing to bring him to trial, but no proceedings had taken place by the end of the year.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture and other ill-treatment were common and committed with impunity. Methods used included severe beatings, electric shocks, suspension, sleep deprivation and insults.
- Dr Saud al-Hashimi, a prisoner of conscience held in solitary confinement since his arrest in February 2007, was reported to have been tortured and otherwise ill-treated several days after he began a hunger strike in June to protest against his continuing detention. He was said to have been stripped to his underwear, shackled and dragged to an extremely cold cell, where he was held for five hours.
Discrimination and violence against women
Women continued to face severe discrimination in law and practice. Women had to have a male guardian to travel outside their home, get married or access many public services. Women remained banned from driving. In June, however, Saudi Arabian officials told the UNHRC that the government would take steps to reduce discrimination against women, although no significant changes had been introduced by the end of the year.
In April, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women issued a report on her visit to Saudi Arabia in 2008. It noted modest reforms, but concluded that the high level of discrimination against women compromised their rights and dignity. It found too that various factors, including women’s lack of autonomy and economic independence, practices surrounding divorce and child custody, the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women, and inconsistencies in law enforcement and the administration of justice, prevented many women from escaping abusive environments. It further noted that violence against female domestic workers was not sufficiently recognized by the state.
The media highlighted several cases of violence against women.
- In February, a 23-year-old unmarried woman who was raped by five men after she accepted a lift, was sentenced by the District Court in Jeddah to one year in prison and 100 lashes for fornication outside marriage and trying to abort the resultant foetus. It was not clear what action was taken against her alleged rapists.
- In July, a man shot dead his two sisters after the religious police arrested the women for associating with men not related to them. The murders were carried out in front of the father; he “pardoned” his son on the grounds that he had been defending the family’s honour and there were contradictory reports as to whether he was brought to justice.
After negative publicity about the consequences for women of early marriage, there were moves by official bodies to address the issue.
Freedom of religion
Shi’a Muslims and at least one Christian were targeted for their beliefs. Eighteen Isma’ili Shi’a Muslims, 17 of whom had been serving 10-year prison sentences since 2000, were released. Most were prisoners of conscience.
- In January, Hamoud Saleh al-Amri was arrested after announcing on his blog that he had converted from Islam to Christianity. He was released in late March on condition that he did not travel abroad or appear in the media.
- At least 10 Shi’a Muslims, including six boys aged between 14 and 16, were arrested in March in Eastern Province and detained incommunicado in connection with a demonstration on 27 February against arrests of Shi’a visitors to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Madina. Several of the boys were released within a few weeks but it was not clear what happened to the others.
- In March, security forces were reported to have arrested several Shi’a Muslims in the city of al-‘Awamiya for protesting against an order for the arrest of a leading Shi’a cleric and imam for criticizing attacks on Shi’a pilgrims and alleged discrimination against the Shi’a community.
Employers and state officials abused the rights of migrant workers with impunity. Domestic workers, particularly women, were made to work up to 18 hours a day and some were subjected to sexual or other abuse.
About 500 migrant workers and others detained in Riyadh’s al-Shumaisi deportation centre went on hunger strike in September to protest against their prolonged detention and overcrowded and filthy conditions. Some had valid passports and airline tickets to leave Saudi Arabia, but they were not permitted to challenge their detention and were held for up to seven months before being deported. Several were reported to have died in detention.
- Mohammed Saquib, an Indian national who had fled from his employer, died in al-Shumaisi deportation centre on 30 August, apparently from tuberculosis and lack of adequate medical treatment.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
The authorities continued to deny entry to some refugees and asylum-seekers. From August, they closed the southern border with Yemen in order to prevent the entry of people fleeing the conflict in Yemen’s Sa’da region.
- Twenty-eight Eritreans continued to be restricted to a camp near Jizan city; they were believed to have been there since 2005.
Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments
Sentences of flogging continued to be passed and implemented. Some people convicted of theft were sentenced to have their hands amputated.
- On 25 March, a court in Makkah sentenced a man to 15 years in jail and 40,000 lashes for the attempted rape and manslaughter of a young woman; she was killed by a truck when she ran into a road to escape from him.
- On 24 July, the right hand of Hasan bin Ayyash Ahmed Sagheer, a Yemeni national convicted of theft, was amputated.
- On 28 September, around 20 teenagers were flogged in public in Khobar and Dammam, each receiving at least 30 lashes, following a riot in Khobar the previous week.
The death penalty continued to be used extensively. Unlike previous years, no one was known to have been executed solely for drugs offences. Defendants facing capital charges received grossly unfair trials, including denial of legal representation and conviction solely on the basis of “confessions” allegedly extracted using torture.
At least 69 people were executed and 141 remained on death row, although the latter figure was believed to be much higher. Among those executed were two women, two juvenile offenders and 19 foreign nationals.
- On 10 May, two juvenile offenders – Sultan bin Sulayman bin Muslim al-Muwallad, a Saudi Arabian, and ‘Issa bin Muhammad ‘Umar Muhammad, a Chadian – were among five men beheaded in Madina after grossly unfair trials. They were convicted of crimes allegedly committed when they were aged 17, including the abduction and rape of children.
Amnesty International visits/reports
- The authorities continued to deny Amnesty International access to Saudi Arabia to investigate human rights.
- Saudi Arabia: Assaulting human rights in the name of counter-terrorism
- Saudi Arabia: Countering terrorism with repression