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Saudi Arabia

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Last updated on 14.08.2020 at 13:50

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Activists & women human rights defenders continue to face reprisals

Activists & women human rights defenders continue to face reprisals

15th May 2020 marked the two-year anniversary of the arrest of WHRD Loujain Al-Hathloul; , Activist Dr Abdullah Al-Hamid dies in Al-Ha'ir prison in Riyadh; Yemeni blogger and human rights defender, Mohamad Al-Bokari arrested for LGBTIQ+ related post;

Association

15th May 2020 marked the two-year anniversary of the arrest of Loujain Al-Hathloul, one of a number of prominent Saudi women’s rights defenders who were arrested in May 2018 for advocating for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia, as well as for broader reforms including an end to the oppressive male guardianship system. In a statement to mark the two-year anniversary, Amnesty International condemned the women’s ongoing detention, highlighting the irony that these women remain behind bars for advocating for the very same rights now enjoyed by Saudi women. According to Amnesty International, many of the women who were imprisoned as a result of their peaceful human rights activities suffered torture, sexual abuse and solitary confinement. Currently, 13 women’s rights defenders remain on trial and of these 13, five remain in detention, namely: Loujain Al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a Al-Zahrani. Eight women activists who were arrested in 2018 have been temporarily released: Iman Al-Nafjan, Aziza Al-Yousef, Amal Al-Harbi, Shadan Al-Anezi, Dr Abir Namankani, and Dr Hatoon Al-Fassi, as well as Dr Ruqayyah Al-Mharib and an anonymous activist. All 13 women’s rights defenders potentially face lengthy prison sentences under anti-cybercrime legislation in violation of their rights to free expression.

On 24th June 2020, the anniversary of the date that Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women driving, Lina Al-Hathloul was interviewed in Ms. Magazine about her sister, Loujain. In the interview, done on behalf of the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, Lina Al-Hathloul mentions that the Saudi authorities continue to deny that Loujain was tortured, and Loujain refuses to sign papers denying that she was tortured in order to be freed from prison. However, due to heavy advocacy by the Free Saudi Activists Coalition and many NGOs worldwide, Al-Hathloul is no longer being tortured or held in prolonged solitary confinement. However, Nassima Al-Sada has been held in prolonged detention.

Loujain was recently named winner of the 2020 Freedom Prize, an educational device to raise awareness of freedom, peace and human rights anchored in the values carried by the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944 in Normandy which recognises a people or an organisation committed to an exemplary fight in favour of freedom. 

On 24th April 2020, Dr Abdullah Al-Hamid died in Al-Ha'ir prison in Riyadh. Dr Al-Hamid is a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). He was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013 on charges related to his work with ACPRA. Dr Al-Hamid was a staunch advocate for building a state of institutions and true citizenship, justice and the suspension of mock trials. On 9th April 2020, he was transferred from his prison cell to the Intensive Care Unit in a hospital. He had slipped into a coma after suffering a stroke in his cell. In the months preceding his death, a specialist informed him that he was in urgent need of catheterisation for his heart. However, he was informed by the authorities that the operation would only take place towards the end of May or early June. Local reports received by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) state that the authorities negligently and deliberately failed to intervene on time in order to ensure that Al-Hamid received the necessary urgent treatment.

Expression

According to reports received by the GCHR, on 17th May 2020, online activist Amani Al-Zain was arrested in Jeddah by the Presidency of State Security on direct orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. She remains in detention in an unknown location. It is believed that Al-Zain was arrested in relation to a widely disseminated online video chat from 15th October 2019 with the Egyptian online activist, Wael Ghonim, where, in a veiled reference to the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khasoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Al-Zain referred to the Saudi Crown Prince as Abu Munshar (‘father of the saw’). The video became the subject of a twitter campaign calling for Al-Zain’s arrest under the hashtag which, translated from the original Arabic, reads #Amani_AlZain_insulting_Crown_Prince. Al-Zain uses her twitter account to express her views on a wide range of political and social issues, including expressing her opposition to the arrests and killings of human rights defenders, journalists and online activists at the hands of the Saudi authorities. Her last tweet was dated 16th May 2020.

On 8th April 2020, Yemeni blogger and human rights defender, Mohamad Al-Bokari, was arrested after posting a video on social media. According to Human Rights Watch, Al-Bokari’s detention appears to be in retaliation for his call for equal rights, particularly for those of the LGBTIQ+ community. Although no specific charges have been brought against Al-Bokari, the authorities accused him of being a ‘sodomiser’ who is ‘violating public order.’ In a statement on Al-Bokari’s detention, the media spokesperson for the Riyadh police department confirmed that Al-Bokari was arrested on 8th April 2020, adding that the video he posted on social media contained ‘sexual references’ that ‘violated public order and morals.’ In the video, Al-Bokari had simply stated that “Everyone has rights and should be able to practise them freely, including gay people.” According to Human Rights Watch, Al-Bokari, who suffers from a chronic heart condition, is being held in pre-trial detention under physical and psychological duress and was repeatedly beaten by police during his arrest in an attempt to extract a confession that he is gay. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch reported that Al-Bokari was subjected to a forced anal examination to seek ‘proof’ of his homosexuality. 

Association in Saudi Arabia

While some space for civil society does exist in Saudi Arabia – most typically through informal, cultural or community-based meetings and interactions – citizens have no meaningful influence over public discourse because of government dominance over the sector and the targeted repression of critical voices.

While some space for civil society does exist in Saudi Arabia – most typically through informal, cultural or community-based meetings and interactions – citizens have no meaningful influence over public discourse because of government dominance over the sector and the targeted repression of critical voices. Some individual human rights activists, like Waleed Abu Al Khair, have been imprisoned for up to fifteen years for merely criticising human rights abuses on social media. A civil society law first proposed a decade ago was approved by the cabinet in December 2015. However, the new law does not ease restrictions on associations, instead providing wide definitions for what constitutes permissible activity and granting wide-ranging powers to government ministers to decide which civil society activities shall and shall not be allowed. Prior to the introduction of this law, people seeking to set up civil society organisations had to wait years for formal government approval or else operate illegally as unregistered entities. Such unregistered organisations are particularly vulnerable to targeted harassment through the courts. Organisations who dare to criticise those in power, like the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), also face coordinated campaigns of arrest, unfair trials and imprisonment of their leadership. The government normally refuses to register organisations with a human rights focus, and has also been known to establish ‘parallel’ human rights organisations to undermine or overshadow the work of legitimately independent civil society groups. Contact between national groups and international civil society is tightly controlled, while foreign organisations are unable to open branches in Saudi Arabia. When interacting with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), human rights defenders face travel bans and imprisonment, in spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia is a member of the HRC. Despite numerous requests, the Saudi government has prevented visits from UN Special Procedures mandate holders.

Peaceful Assembly in Saudi Arabia

Protests are few and far between in Saudi Arabia, where authorities have actively issued orders banning all forms of public gathering, even those aimed at promoting cultural or literary causes.

Protests are few and far between in Saudi Arabia, where authorities have actively issued orders banning all forms of public gathering, even those aimed at promoting cultural or literary causes. These orders violate Article 24 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights (guaranteeing the freedom of peaceful assembly) to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory. The current clampdown follows protests in 2011 by people inspired by citizen mobilisations in other parts of the Arab world at that time. Protests then were called for through social media, but were dealt with harshly by the authorities who said demonstrations violated Islamic law and the kingdom’s traditions. Small-scale protests later that year were also quickly closed down through the arrest of all participants. Notably however, some more recent protests, for instance prolonged demonstrations in the Eastern Province city of Qatif in 2014 and 2016, were not broken up by security forces. Women, whose civic freedoms are much more heavily constrained than those of men, also protested in 2011 through defiance of laws banning them from driving. The biggest protest against the driving ban took place in 2013 when 60 Saudi women protested by getting behind the wheel.

Expression in Saudi Arabia

The media in Saudi Arabia is heavily censored and journalists also censor themselves because of a fear of reprisals for commentary or reporting that could be seen as critical of the authorities.

The media in Saudi Arabia is heavily censored and journalists also censor themselves because of a fear of reprisals for commentary or reporting that could be seen as critical of the authorities. As mainstream channels of expression – printed newspapers, television and radio – have been closed off to free expression, Saudis have forged alternative avenues through the Internet. In recent years, social media has become an increasingly important outlet for free expression in Saudi Arabia, particularly amongst the country’s large youth population. In 2015 it was estimated that 60% of Saudis were online and that there were 2.8 million Twitter followers in the country. However, people who criticise the authorities online can pay a heavy price, as was shown by the sentencing to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison of blogger Raif Badawi in 2014. Additionally, and although online activity has increased markedly in recent years, the government takes active steps to block access to certain websites, including those of prominent Saudi human rights groups.