CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Saudi Arabia

Live rating: Closed

Last updated on 27.02.2019 at 11:23

Saudia Arabia Overview

Despite certain political and social reforms made since the turn of the century, the authorities in Saudi Arabia continue their decades-long clampdown on dissent, human rights activism and independent reporting through the media.

read more

Latest Civicus alert

See all CIVICUS Alerts

The Civic Space Developments

view Civic Space Developments
Prominent WHRD Israa Al-Ghomgham spared death penalty sentence

Prominent WHRD Israa Al-Ghomgham spared death penalty sentence

Association

Saudi authorities continue to persecute human rights defenders and women human rights defenders. As previously reported on the CIVCUS Monitor, since May 2018, at least 22 women human rights defenders have been arrested and subjected to human rights violations because of their rights activism on gender issues in Saudi Arabia. In late November 2018, Saudi authorities denied reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that detained women human rights defenders were being tortured and subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment. According to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, four women human rights defenders who had been detained since May were subjected to torture including sexual assaults and harassment. One of the women was reportedly tortured with electric shocks and tied to a steel bed and whipped. Further reports in January 2019 indicated that the torture has continued. Recent reports highlight the use of psychological torture, as seen in one incident where one activist was wrongly told by an interrogator that one of her family members had died, and was made to believe this for an entire month.

Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said:

“Any brutal torture of Saudi women activists would show no limit to the Saudi authorities’ campaign of wanton cruelty against critics and human rights activists…. Any government that tortures women for demanding basic rights should face withering international criticism, not unblinking US and UK support.”

The detained human rights defenders are yet to be charged with any offence, and despite calls to allow independent monitors access to them, access has not been granted. At least 16 of those detained in the 2018 crackdown remain in prison, including men and women. They include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Shadan Al-Enazi, Amal Al-Harbi, Mohammed Al-Bajadi and Marwan Al-Muraisy. According to CIVICUS Monitor research partner, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) other detainees are not being named because their families want to avoid publicity. Two men, Ibrahim Al-Modaimeegh and Abdulaziz Al-Mesha'al, also arrested during the 2018 crackdown for supporting the women’s rights movement, were released in December 2018 and January 2019 respectively.

A global campaign calling for the release of the women human rights defenders gathered more than 240,000 signatures. The petition which started by Women’s March Global quickly drew international attention to the issue. Similarly, in October 2018, over 170 civil society organisations called on the United Nations to suspend Saudi Arabia from the UN Human Rights Council because of its campaign against women human rights defenders.

On 18th December 2018, human rights defender Dr. Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani was placed in solitary confinement at Al-Ha’ir criminal prison in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he is serving a 10-year sentence for his peaceful human rights activities. No reason was given by the prison authorities. According to GCHR, Dr Al-Qahtani was released from solitary confinement on 19th December 2018. Dr Al-Qahtani was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in March 2013, on 12 charges including setting up an unlicensed organisation Civil and Political Rights Association in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), "refusing to submit to the will of the King", "inciting public disorder" and "communicating with foreign entities”.

Dr. Al-Qahtani was awarded the 2018 Right Livelihood Award along with Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid and Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who are also in prison in Saudi Arabia. He co-founded the Association for Civil Rights and Political Rights (ACPRA) along with Dr. Al-Hamid. 

In January 2019, a death penalty sentence imposed against woman human rights defender Israa Al-Ghomgham for participation in peaceful protests was lifted following intense international pressure. Although the death sentence was lifted, she is still likely facing a lengthy sentence for engaging in peaceful protests in 2015. As previously reported on the Monitor, Israa Al-Ghomgham would have potentially become the first woman to be sentenced to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, after the prosecutor asked the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) for her execution by beheading on 6th August 2018. Her most recent trial date on 13th January 2019 was postponed because the SCC is currently undergoing restructuring amid mounting international pressure, with a new head of Court, Deputy and most likely new Judges expected. Al-Ghomgham’s health is suffering as a result of poor treatment and has had limited access to her family, leading to increased concern for her well-being. 

Expression

In January 2019, Amnesty International reported that the Saudi authorities had censored streaming service, Netflix in the Kingdom, citing anti cybercrime laws as justification. An episode of a satirical comedy show known as 'Patriot Act' which was critical of the Saudi authorities was removed from Netflix after officials from the Kingdom complained.

Reacting to these developments, Samah Hadid, Middle East Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International, said:

“The authorities have previously used anti cyber-crime laws to silence dissidents, creating an environment of fear for those who dare to speak up in Saudi Arabia.... By bowing to the Saudi Arabian authorities’ demands, Netflix is in danger of facilitating the Kingdom’s zero-tolerance policy on freedom of expression and assisting the authorities in denying people’s right to freely access information.”

In separate developments, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, Agnes Callamard, began an international inquiry into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, making a visit to Turkey from 28th January to 3rd February 2019. The inquiry, which was hailed by Human Rights Watch as a brave and courageous move, was established under the authority of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur, to review and evaluate, from a human rights perspective, the circumstances surrounding the killing of Khashoggi. Her report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019. Previously, UN Secretary General António Guterres had told reporters that he couldn’t launch a “criminal investigation” without a mandate from the UN Security Council or General Assembly, a decision which was criticised by Human Rights Watch, especially considering that previous heads of the UN have used their authority to launch inquiries on a range of issues, with or without requests or mandates from UN member states, or various UN legislative bodies.

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.