Saudi Arabia 2017/2018
The authorities severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Many human rights defenders and critics were detained and some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials. Several Shi’a activists were executed, and many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common. Despite limited reforms, women faced systemic discrimination in law and practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. The authorities used the death penalty extensively, carrying out scores of executions. The Saudi-led coalition continued to commit serious violations of international law in Yemen.
In June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates severed relations with Qatar, negatively affecting thousands of nationals and migrant workers.
The same month, King Salman reshuffled the security and political landscape, considerably reducing the Ministry of Interior’s powers. On 17 June the King stripped the Ministry of its powers to investigate and prosecute crimes, transferring these powers to the Public Prosecution, which he placed under his direct authority. In July, the Ministry’s mandate was further reduced when a royal decree established the Presidency of State Security, mandated to address all state security matters including “terrorism”, and reporting directly to the King. A number of changes in senior positions also took place during this time, but the most significant change happened on 21 June, when King Salman named his son Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince, unseating his nephew Mohammed bin Naif Al Saud.
In May, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism concluded that Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism law did not comply with international standards, and urged the government “to end the prosecution of people including human rights defenders, writers and bloggers simply for expressing non-violent views”.
US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May to participate in the Riyadh summit, attended by representatives of more than 55 mostly Arab or Muslim-majority states. A USD300 billion arms deal between the USA and Saudi Arabia was announced during the visit.
The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition supporting the internationally recognized government in Yemen continued to bomb areas controlled or contested by Huthi forces and their allies, killing and injuring civilians. Some attacks amounted to war crimes. A UN report, released in September, found that the Saudi-led coalition continued to be the leading cause of civilian casualties in the conflict (see Yemen entry). In October, the UN Secretary-General listed the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in his annual Children and Armed Conflict report, creating a new category specifically designed to limit condemnation of the coalition.
Discrimination – Shi’a minority
Members of the Shi’a Muslim minority continued to face discrimination because of their faith, limiting their right to express religious beliefs and their access to justice, and arbitrarily restricting other rights, including the rights to work and to state services. Shi’a activists continued to face arrest, imprisonment and in some cases the death penalty following unfair trials. Four Shi’a men sentenced to death for protest-related offences were executed in July.
Between May and August, security forces began evacuating al-Masoura district, in the town of al-Awamiyah in the Eastern Province where Shi’a form the majority of the population, in order to build development projects. Armed clashes, marked by the use of heavy artillery and shelling, erupted between security forces and armed men who refused to leave the area, leading to the deaths and injury of scores of residents and significant damage to the town. The authorities accused the men of “terrorism activities” and other criminal offences, vowing to crack down on them. Residents reported that the authorities banned ambulances and medical aid from entering the area, and many families who remained lacked food, water, medical treatment and other basic goods. Scores of people were reportedly arrested and detained during this operation, including activists.
For example, human rights defender Ali Shaaban was arrested on 15 May following Facebook posts expressing solidarity with al-Awamiyah’s residents. He remained in detention at the end of the year.
In July, families of 15 Shi’a men accused of spying for Iran and sentenced to death after a grossly unfair mass trial learned that the SCC’s court of appeal had upheld their sentences. In December, some relatives were told that the sentences were upheld following the Supreme Court’s review, leaving the men at risk of imminent execution.
The SCC continued to try Shi’a activists for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012. The death sentence continued to be used against political dissenters. At least 38 Shi’a men remained at risk of execution, including four who were sentenced to death for participating in protests in 2012 when they were under the age of 18.
Freedoms of expression, association and assembly
The authorities continued to repress peaceful activists and dissidents, harassing writers, online commentators and others who exercised their right to freedom of expression by expressing views against government policies.
Following the announced decision to sever ties with Qatar, the Saudi authorities warned people against expressing sympathy towards Qatar or criticizing government actions, stating that this would be considered an offence punishable under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. All public gatherings, including peaceful demonstrations, remained prohibited under a 2011 order by the Ministry of the Interior.
Human rights defenders
Two years after the law on association was passed, no new independent human rights organizations had been established under its provisions. Independent human rights organizations that were forcibly shut down, including the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), the Union for Human Rights, the Adala Center for Human Rights, and the Monitor for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, remained inactive. Almost all their members were convicted and sentenced, fled the country, or were brought to trial before the SCC.
In October, the authorities passed a new Counter-Terrorism Law replacing the February 2014 law, introducing specific penalties for “terrorist” crimes, including the death penalty. The law continued the use of a vague and overly broad definition of acts of terrorism, allowing it to be used as a tool to further suppress freedom of expression and human rights defenders.
The authorities continued to arrest, prosecute and sentence human rights defenders on vaguely worded charges that extensively drew on the Counter-Terrorism Law of February 2014. For instance, all 11 founding members of ACPRA, which the authorities closed down in 2013, were sentenced to prison terms.
In September Abdulaziz al-Shubaily, a human rights defender and founding member ACPRA, was detained to begin serving his sentence of eight years’ imprisonment to be followed by an eight-year travel ban and a ban from writing on social media, after his sentence was upheld by the court of appeal. He was convicted of, among other charges, “insulting the integrity of the judicial system and the judges” and “violating Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law” by “inciting public opinion against the rulers of this country and signing statements that were published online that call on people to demonstrate”.
In early January, computer engineer and human rights activist Essam Koshak was summoned for interrogation and repeatedly questioned about his Twitter account. On 21 August his trial began before the SCC. He faced several charges related to his online activism.
On 21 August, human rights defender Issa al-Nukheifi’s trial began before the SCC. He faced several charges relating to his Twitter posts. He had been arrested on 18 December 2016 and remained in detention in Mecca General Prison at the end of 2017.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions
Security authorities continued to carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions without charge or trial for prolonged periods without referrals to a competent court, in breach of the Code of Criminal Procedures. Detainees were frequently held incommunicado during interrogation and denied access to lawyers, in violation of international fair trial standards. In February, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon, three young men arrested on protest-related charges and at risk of imminent execution, were detained arbitrarily. The Working Group stated that the men had been deprived of their liberty without any legal basis, as they were prosecuted and sentenced on the basis of laws enacted two years after their arrest, contrary to international law.
In September, the authorities carried out a wave of arrests detaining more than 20 prominent religious figures, writers, journalists and academics.
In November, the authorities detained hundreds of current and former officials and businessmen without disclosing details about any charges that had been brought against them. Some were later freed, reportedly after making financial settlements.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common and widespread. Courts continued to convict people and uphold death sentences on the basis of contested pre-trial “confessions”. Security officials continued to torture and otherwise ill-treat detainees with complete impunity.
In July, the families of 14 men sentenced to death for protest-related charges learned by telephone that their relatives’ sentences had been upheld. Court documents showed that the 14 men were subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention and that they reported having been tortured and ill-treated during interrogation in order to extract “confessions” from them. In sentencing, the SCC appeared to have relied mostly on the “confessions” for evidence against the men and failed to investigate their allegations of torture.
Women and girls continued to face discrimination in law and practice, despite the government’s promised reforms. Women were required to have permission from a male guardian – their father, husband, brother or son – to enrol in higher education, seek employment, travel or marry. They also remained inadequately protected against sexual and other forms of violence.
In April, King Salman issued a royal decree calling on government entities to refrain from requesting the authorization of a male guardian for any services unless stipulated in the regulations. The decree also ordered government entities to review their existing regulations and to prepare a list of procedures that would require a guardian’s permission. The decree could improve women’s freedom to control their own lives; however, it had not been implemented by the end of the year. The same month, Saudi Arabia was elected as a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
In September, the King issued another royal decree allowing women to drive, due to enter into force after 23 June 2018. The decree stated that it would be implemented according to “established legal regulations”, without providing clarification, which raised questions about how it would be implemented in practice. Following this announcement, women’s rights activists who had campaigned against the driving ban reported receiving telephone calls warning them against publicly commenting on the development or risk facing interrogations.
Maryam al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old activist who had actively participated in the campaign to end the male guardianship system, was arrested and detained in the capital, Riyadh, on 19 April after fleeing an abusive home environment in al-Qassim. She was interrogated after her father – also her legal guardian – filed a complaint against her for leaving the family home. On 30 July, she was released on bail. At the end of the year her case was ongoing in court and she was at risk of being detained again.
Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent human rights defender who had been detained for defying the driving ban, was rearrested and detained on 4 June upon arrival at Dammam airport. She was questioned about her activism and released four days later. The conditions of her release remained unclear.
Workers’ rights – migrant workers
The authorities continued to crack down on migrant workers with irregular status, arresting, detaining and deporting thousands. In March, the Ministry of Interior launched a campaign called “A Nation without Violations”, giving migrant workers 90 days to regularize their status or leave the country without penalties.
Courts continued to impose death sentences for a range of crimes, including drug offences or for conduct that under international standards should not be criminalized, such as “sorcery” and “adultery”. Many defendants were sentenced to death after unfair trials by courts that convicted them without adequately investigating allegations of coerced “confessions”, including under torture. The authorities routinely failed to inform families of their relatives’ imminent execution, or failed to inform them immediately after executions had been carried out.
On 11 July, father-of-two Yussuf Ali al-Mushaikhass was executed along with three other men for terror-related offences in connection with anti-government protests in the Eastern Province between 2011 and 2012. His family only found out about the execution after it had happened when they saw a government announcement on television. The court appeared to have based the conviction largely on “confessions” which Yussuf al-Mushaikhass told the court had been obtained under torture and other ill-treatment.
Said al-Sai’ari was executed on 13 September. He had been sentenced to death by the General Court in Najran in 2013, although the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. In passing its verdict, the court relied on the sworn statements of the victim’s father, who believed that Said al-Sai’ari was responsible for the murder of his son, even though the victim’s father was not present at the crime scene.