Saudi Arabia

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SAUDI ARABIA 2021

The crackdown continued on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Specialized Criminal Court handed down heavy prison terms to individuals for their human rights work and expression of dissenting views. Among those arbitrarily detained, prosecuted or sentenced were human rights defenders, government critics and other political activists. Women human rights defenders were subjected to judicially imposed travel bans following conditional release from prison. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation under the country’s sponsorship system, and tens of thousands were arbitrarily detained and subsequently deported. Prison authorities violated the right to health of human rights defenders and others imprisoned after grossly unfair trials.

Background

In January, the foreign minister announced an end to the rift that had pitted Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other states against Qatar since 2017, and that Saudi Arabia would restore diplomatic ties with Qatar.

In July, the European Parliament strongly condemned the ongoing use of the death penalty in cases of child offenders and called for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defenders. On 27 September, Saudi Arabia and the EU had their first human rights dialogue, which was held in Brussels, Belgium. The EU expressed its concerns about freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia and raised several cases of individual Saudi human rights defenders.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the long-running armed conflict in Yemen continued to be implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law (see Yemen entry).

Freedom of expression and association

Following a brief lull in prosecutions of human rights defenders and dissidents during the G20 summit chaired by Saudi Arabia in November 2020, the authorities resumed punitive trials, particularly before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), of anyone who expressed views critical of the government or opinions contrary to those of the government about socio-economic or political developments in the country. The SCC sentenced people to heavy prison terms for their human rights work and expression of dissenting views, including on Twitter. It also imposed restrictive conditions on individuals released after serving their sentences, including travel bans and ordering the closure of their social media accounts.

In March, the SCC increased by a total of three years the 14-year prison sentence that Mohammad al-Otaibi, a founding member of the Union for Human Rights, an independent human rights organization, was already serving. His sentence was based solely on his human rights work, including forming a human rights organization.

In April, the SCC sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, who works at the Saudi Arabian Red Crescent Society in the capital Riyadh, to 20 years in prison and a subsequent travel ban of equal duration. The evidence presented against him consisted of satirical and critical tweets about the government’s economic policies and form of governance, for which he was charged with, among other things, “preparing, storing and sending what would prejudice public order and religious values” and “offending state institutions and officials and spreading false rumours about them”.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders continued to be detained arbitrarily, sentenced after grossly unfair trials or silenced following conditional release.

In February, prominent women human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul was conditionally released after serving her prison term.1 In June, women human rights defenders Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi were also conditionally released. The conditions imposed included judicially imposed bans on travel, public speaking, resumption of human rights work and use of social media, which violate their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the country and freedom of movement outside the country.

Between January and July, the SCC unjustly sentenced five human rights defenders to prison terms ranging from six to 20 years. Some of them had recently finished serving lengthy prison terms from previous cases on similar charges related to their peaceful exercise of human rights.2 For example, in April, the SCC sentenced Mohammad al-Rabiah, a human rights defender, writer and outspoken advocate for women’s rights, to six years in prison to be followed by a six-year travel ban when he had already served almost three years in prison after his May 2018 arrest as part of the crackdown on women human rights defenders.

Death penalty

In January, the authorities announced major reforms in relation to the death penalty, including a moratorium on executions for drug-related crimes, but took no formal steps to amend the Saudi Drugs and Narcotics Control Law or clarify how the moratorium will take effect .

In February, in a positive development in the cases of Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoun, three young men arrested as children, the SCC commuted their death sentences and re-sentenced them to 10-year prison terms inclusive of time served.3 The re-sentencing followed an order by the public prosecutor in August 2020 to review the death sentences of the three men. Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher were released in October and November, respectively, after finishing 10-year prison terms.

The judiciary resumed handing down discretionary (ta’zir) death sentences against individuals convicted of crimes not punishable by death under sharia (Islamic law). On 15 June, the authorities executed Mustafa al-Darwish, a young Saudi Arabian man from the Shi’a minority who was convicted of charges related to his alleged participation in violent anti-government protests.4

Migrants’ rights

The Ministry of Labour introduced limited reforms to its sponsorship (kafala) system in March, easing restrictions on some migrant workers in relation to transferring jobs without the permission of their employers under certain conditions. The conditions include non-payment of salary for three consecutive months; expiry of the employee’s work permit; and when an employer fails to attend two litigation hearings if a labour dispute has arisen. The reforms also include allowing migrant workers to request an exit permit without the permission of their employer, but did not abolish the exit permit. Under these conditions, migrant workers continued to be tied to their employers, who retained considerable control over their rights and freedom of movement. Domestic migrant workers continued to be excluded from protections under the country’s labour law.

Throughout the year, the authorities continued their crackdown on migrants accused of violating residential, border security and labour regulations and laws through mass arbitrary arrests. The Ministry of Interior announced that in November and December alone, at least 117,000 men and women were arrested for violating these regulations, and over 2,400 individuals – most of them Ethiopian and Yemeni migrants – were arrested for crossing the border into Saudi Arabia without valid visas. Some 73,000 men and women were subsequently deported to their home country.

In April, Amnesty International documented the detention of at least 41 Sri Lankan women, all migrant domestic workers, for up to 18 months at the Exit 18 Deportation Detention Centre in Riyadh, awaiting repatriation. Many of the women had been detained due to their migration status under the kafala system. Reasons included expiry of their work permit, their employer’s failure or refusal to obtain an exit permit, and their attempted escape from an abusive employer to travel back to their countries without an exit permit. Following international and national attention, all the women were repatriated by May.5

In July, a state-aligned media outlet announced that Qiwa, a platform run by the Ministry of Human Resources, had set a maximum quota for the hiring of Indian, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Ethiopian nationals. While this decision stated that it only applied to newly hired workers, or workers who had shifted their permits to new entities, Reuters and Human Rights Watch reported that the Saudi authorities had effectively terminated contracts or stopped renewing the contracts of tens of Yemenis already employed in institutions in the country.

Women’s and girls’ rights

On 8 February, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced on Saudi Arabia’s official press agency major legislative developments, including a new personal status law. The authorities made no further announcements regarding this legislative reform and it remained unclear when the new law would come into effect. Women continued to face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.

In May, a state-aligned media outlet reported that the Shura Council renewed discussions to amend the nationality law to give permanent residency, without any fee or lengthy procedures, to the children of Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals.

Right to health

As of September, according to the Ministry of Health, at least 42 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered. According to Reuters, this represented about 61% of the country’s population, assuming each person had received two doses.

A state-aligned media outlet reported that as of April, about 68% of detainees in state security prisons had been vaccinated against Covid-19, and that work to vaccinate the remaining prisoners who had consented was ongoing. In cases where prisoners tested positive for Covid-19, prison authorities isolated them in individual cells. However, prisoners were also denied contact with their families for the duration of their isolation. In one case, Mohammad al-Qahtani, a human rights defender and founding member of the now disbanded Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), was detained incommunicado and was not allowed to speak to his family for 14 days after he tested positive for Covid-19 in April.6

Individuals in urgent need of medical care continued to be imprisoned without adequate medical attention or treatment.

Mohammad al-Khudari, an 83-year-old Palestinian man and retired surgeon, politician and writer, whose health was deteriorating in prison, was deprived of adequate medical treatment for multiple health issues, including cancer, incontinence, herniated discs, bone fragility and general frailty. The SCC sentenced him on 8 August to 15 years in prison (with half of the term suspended because of his age) after a mass trial that included his son. The sentence was reduced following an appeal session on 28 December to six years in prison (with a three-year suspension). The trial was marred by serious due process violations.7

Religious cleric Salman Alodah remained in solitary confinement since his arrest in September 2017. According to his son, his health had deteriorated in detention, leading him to lose part of his vision and hearing. Charged with offences punishable by death, Salman Alodah had faced over 10 trial sessions since his trial began in August 2018, including three sessions in 2021 alone, all of which were postponed for months with no clear reason given, exacting a huge mental and emotional toll on him and his loved ones.

Death in custody

In October, cleric Musa al-Qarni was attacked and killed in detention by another inmate in his cell in Dhahban prison near Jeddah. According to sources, his face, skull and ribs were smashed and fractured, and he suffered bleeding in the brain. The authorities failed to carry out an investigation into his death.8

Right to privacy

In July, the Pegasus Project investigation revealed the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, including those of Saudi journalists, human rights defenders and relatives of dissidents. Amnesty International’s forensic evidence confirmed that family members of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi were targeted with Pegasus software before and after his murder in Turkey on 2 October 2018 by Saudi operatives, despite repeated denials by NSO Group. Pegasus spyware was installed on the phone of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz four days after his murder. His wife, Hanan Elatr, was repeatedly targeted with the spyware between September 2017 and April 2018, and his son Abdullah was also selected for potential targeting.9


  1. “Saudi Arabia: Release of women’s rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul long overdue”, 10 February
  2. Saudi Arabia’s Post-G20 Crackdown on Expression: Resumption of Crackdown on Free Speech, Human Rights Activism and Use of the Death Penalty (Index: MDE 23/4532/2021), 3 August
  3. “Saudi Arabia: Withdrawal of death sentences for three Shi’a activists arrested as teenagers a welcome move”, 8 February
  4. Saudi Arabia: Further Information: Young Saudi Executed After Grossly Unfair Trial: Mustafa al-Darwish (Index: MDE 23/4453/2021), 14 July
  5. “Saudi Arabia: Dozens of Sri Lankan women wrongfully detained for months due to abusive kafala system”, 15 April
  6. “Saudi Arabia: Fears for health of imprisoned human rights defender held incommunicado”, 16 April
  7. Saudi Arabia: 83-Year-Old Detainee Needs Urgent Medical Care: Dr. Mohammed al-Khudari, Dr. Hani al-Khudari (Index: MDE 23/4758/2021), 22 September
  8. Saudi Arabia: Impunity for Cleric Death in Custody Illustrates Disregard for Prisoner Rights (Index: MDE 23/5105/2021), 15 December
  9. “Massive data leak reveals Israeli NSO Group’s spyware used to target activists, journalists, and political leaders globally”, 18 July