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Last updated on 25.08.2021 at 09:16

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CSOs Denounce Recent Intensification in the Persecution of HRDs and Dissenting Voices

CSOs Denounce Recent Intensification in the Persecution of HRDs and Dissenting Voices

Amnesty International deplores recent intensification in the persecution of human rights defenders and dissidents; (GCHR) releases a new report entitled, “Ongoing violations of freedom of expression on and off the Internet and restrictions of diverse opinions” which documents the “new era of massive violations of civil and human rights of human rights defenders; GCHR also documents repeated abuse of human rights defenders in Saudi prisons; Mustafa Al-Darwish executed after conviction at a deeply-flawed trial on charges of participation in 2011-2012 anti-government riots

Expression

On 3rd August 2021, Amnesty International deplored the recent intensification in the persecution of human rights defenders and dissidents after a lull in prosecutions and a sharp decline in the use of the death penalty during Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency last year. In its new report, “Saudi Arabia’s post-G20 crackdown on expression”, Amnesty International documents how, since Saudi Arabia handed over the G20 presidency, authorities have prosecuted, sentenced or ratified sentences of at least 13 people, following grossly unfair trials before the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC). After an 85% fall in recorded executions in 2020, at least 40 people were put to death between January and July 2021 – more than during the whole of 2020.

In the same vein, on 9th August 2021, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) released a new report entitled, “Ongoing violations of freedom of expression on and off the Internet and restrictions of diverse opinions.” The report documents the “new era of massive violations of civil and human rights of human rights defenders, including bloggers and Internet activists, and the general public” since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince of Saudi Arabia in June 2017.

The crown prince’s rise was followed on 20th July 2017 by the establishment of a new repressive security apparatus, the Presidency of State Security. This development has facilitated the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a police state that suppresses the voices of opponents through arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. Prominent women human rights defenders have also borne the brunt of these oppressive tactics.

Amongst the recent cases documented in GCHR’s report is the recent appeal of internet activist Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan, who appeared before the Court of Appeal in Riyadh on 4th August 2021 to appeal the sentence of 20 years in prison and a 20-year travel ban upon completion of his sentence. 

GCHR has also documented repeated abuse of human rights defenders in Saudi prisons, who have resorted to hunger strikes to achieve their demands. On 9th August 2021, human rights defender Maha Al-Qahtani announced on Twitter that her husband, Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, had begun a hunger strike. His motivation is ill-treatment, being deprived of his books that have remained in the possession of the prison administration for nearly a year, and his wife’s phone number being blocked so that he could not contact his family. Dr. Al-Qahtani, a founder of the Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), was sentenced on 9th March 2013.to ten years in prison for setting up ACPRA, among other charges.

Peaceful Assembly

On 15th June 2021, Mustafa Al-Darwish, 26, was executed, following his conviction at a deeply-flawed trial on charges of participation in anti-government riots. Al-Darwish was arrested in May 2015 for his alleged participation in riots between 2011 and 2012. During his detention he was placed in solitary confinement and held incommunicado for six months and denied access to a lawyer until the beginning of his trial two years later. International human rights law strictly prohibits the use of the death penalty for people who were under 18 years old at the time they committed an offence. It is thought that Mustafa Al-Darwish was either 17 or 18 at the time of the alleged crimes.

Amnesty international’s statement regarding Al-Darwish’s execution read in part:

By carrying out this execution the Saudi Arabian authorities have displayed a deplorable disregard for the right to life. He is the latest victim of Saudi Arabia’s deeply flawed justice system which regularly sees people sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials based on confessions extracted through torture.

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.