The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has, once again, focused international attention to the oil-rich Middle Eastern country’s human rights record.
“What will be King Abdullah’s legacy?” everybody seems to be asking.
The answer is not simple.
Since taking the throne in 2005, King Abdullah initiated some positive reforms.
Women, for example, have slowly been included in the Shura Council, a powerless consultative body to advise the King, and incorporated into the workforce – with some being allowed to work in courts as lawyers.
The late King is credited for opening a dozen new universities and providing thousands of Saudi Arabian citizens with generous scholarships to study abroad. He also initiated seemingly ambitious judicial reforms that have not really gone anywhere.
He even decreed the founding of a formal National Human Rights Commission and allowed the establishment of a supposedly independent human rights organization.
But that’s where the good news ends.
Despite the advances in recent years, the country’s human rights record has worsened. The negatives vastly outweigh the positives.
Recently, the case of Raif Badawi has come to symbolize the worsening human rights situation in the country.
In May 2014, Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for starting a website for social and political debate in Saudi Arabia, the ‘Free Saudi Liberal Network’ and charged with insulting Islam.
He received the first 50 lashes on Friday 9 January. While the flogging has been postponed, he is still languishing in jail and the punishment could be resumed at any time.
Raif Badawi’s case is just one example we have documented of the state’s brutality in Saudi Arabia.
Under King Abdullah’s reign, there has been an increasing crackdown on freedom of expression. All of the country’s prominent human rights activists have either been jailed, forced into silence, or fled the country. Hundreds have been imprisoned for “crimes” such as using social media to discuss human rights issues or for “insulting the King”.
Throughout his reign, hundreds of people have been beheaded and several hundreds sentenced to death. Severe discrimination against women continues in law and practice, including through an archaic driving ban and a deeply discriminating guardianship system which requires women to get the permission of a male relative to work, seek higher education and travel. Citizens and foreigners alike are banned from practicing their religions freely if they do not comply with the state’s version of Sunni Islam. Torture remains rife.
The list of violations doesn’t end there.
In February 2013, the country introduced a repressive counter-terrorism law that effectively legalizes repression.
Under the law, “terrorist acts” are so loosely defined that acts of peaceful expression could be punished under them.
The law also granted the Ministry of Interior wide powers to order searches, seizures, arrests and detentions of suspects with little or no judicial oversight. And it has been used to target women drivers, lawyers, human rights activists, and others who expressed their ideas peacefully.
Suspects can now be held for up to 90 days with no contact with the outside world beyond a single phone call to their family. They cannot see a lawyer. This makes detainees even more vulnerable to torture.
It’s not hard to see how this can be easily misused to punish peaceful activists.
Saudi Arabia has a very long way to go if it wants to be seen as a country that respects basic human rights.
What is clear, however, is that there are many actions that King Abdullah’s successor King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud could and should take to undo some of these wrongs.
Releasing everyone imprisoned solely for voicing their opinions peacefully, extensively revising its anti-terror law, ending discrimination against women and minorities, and ending executions, torture and cruel punishments, such as flogging would be some good first steps.