CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Saudi Arabia

Live rating: Closed

Last updated on 12.03.2020 at 13:35

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
Women’s Rights Defender, Loujain Al-Hathloul, due in court

Women’s Rights Defender, Loujain Al-Hathloul, due in court

Loujain Al-Hathloul, the prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights defender, due to appear in court in Riyadh; Amnesty International releases a report which exposes how, despite the authorities’ reform-oriented rhetoric, there is an increasing tendency to use the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) as a weapon to systematically silence dissent; Detained human rights defenders Walid Abu Al-Khair, Raif Badawi and Khaled Al-Omair go on prolonged hunger strikes.

Expression

 Al-Hathloul, the prominent Saudi Arabian women’s rights defender, is due to appear in court in Riyadh on Wednesday 11th March 2020, along with another women’s rights activist Maya’a Al-Zahrani. A coalition of groups including Women’s March Global who support the women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia continues to carry out regular campaigns for their freedom, including a twitter action for Al-Hathloul. The matter was however postponed to 18th March 2020.

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Al-Hathloul was one of a dozen women’s rights defenders arrested by the Saudi authorities in May 2018 in retaliation for their peaceful human rights activities, including campaigning for women’s right to drive and ending the male guardianship system. Among those who remain detained are Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz, in addition to over 14 sympathisers and family members of detained activists who were arrested in March and April 2019.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GC4HR) reported that several of the detained women’s rights defenders have been subjected to electric shocks, flogging, sexual threats and other forms of torture during interrogation, with some held in prolonged solitary confinement. These violations have taken place with impunity and women, including Al-Hathloul, have been pressured to deny the torture in order to obtain their freedom. After refusing to deny the torture, she remains in prison.

Al-Hathloul’s trial commenced on 13th March 2019 in the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh and all of the previous hearings have been closed, with diplomats and journalists banned from attending. She has endured torture, sexual abuse and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment during her detention and was held incommunicado without access to her family or a lawyer for the first three months of her detention. According to Amnesty International, since January 2020, Al-Hathloul has once again been subjected to periods of solitary confinement. GC4HR reports that Badawi and Al-Sadah are also being held in prolonged solitary confinement.

This crackdown against women’s rights defenders has occurred in parallel with a number of landmark reforms that, if fully implemented, herald important progress for Saudi women. The reforms include allowing women to obtain passports, drive and travel abroad without the approval of a male relative for the first time. However, the authorities have yet to fully dismantle the male guardianship system, tackle severe gender inequality and end the arbitrary detention and prosecution of women’s rights activists.

The stark contrast between the authorities’ public pronouncements on women’s rights and their appalling treatment of those who protect and promote them, has once again been thrown into sharp relief by the inauguration of the Women’s Football League which took place in Riyadh on 24th February 2020. The League was officially launched by Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, who stressed that the initiative had ‘the boundless support of His Majesty King Salman and HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.’ Also in January 2020, the Dakar Rally that was held in Saudi Arabia allowed women drivers for the first time, so NGOs campaigned to raise awareness that the women who made it possible for them to participate remained in prison. Organisations such as the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Amnesty International have criticised the launch of such initiatives as mere “sports-washing” which takes advantage of the publicity generated by sporting events in order to gloss over serious human rights violations committed by the Saudi authorities in recent years.

Since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Saudi Arabia has faced increased international criticism over its human rights record; particularly its lack of a transparent investigation into Khashoggi’s murder, the torture and detention of women’s rights activists and its role in war crimes committed during its military operations in Yemen. 

In 2019, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the wider climate of fear and repression created by Saudi Arabia’s relentless targeting of human rights defenders, journalists and dissenting voices, was the subject of a damning report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard.

However, despite the global outcry at Khashoggi’s killing and the intense scrutiny of Callamard’s report, the situation remains just as perilous for human rights defenders and all those who wish to exercise their right to freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. On 6th February 2020, Amnesty International released a report entitled “Muzzling critical voices: Politicized trials before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court”, which exposes how, despite the authorities’ reform-oriented rhetoric, there is an increasing tendency to use the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) as a weapon to systematically silence dissent. The report documents the chilling effect of vexatious law suits and the abuse of counter-terrorism legislation against human rights defenders, writers, journalists, reformists and political activists, on freedom of expression and civic space in Saudi Arabia.

Detained human rights defenders Walid Abu Al-Khair, Raif Badawi and Khaled Al-Omair went on prolonged hunger strikes from December 2019 to protest being held in solitary confinement, among other abuses they have faced in prison, where they are serving lengthy sentences for their human rights activities. On 6th February 2020, Abu Al-Khair announced that he would end his hunger strike after the authorities transferred him from solitary confinement in a maximum-security cell back to his former cell in Dhahban prison in Jeddah. He began his hunger strike on 11th December 2019 to protest being held in solitary confinement and was taken to hospital on 9th January 2020 after his health declined.

Similarly, on 11th December 2019, imprisoned blogger and human rights defender Raif Badawi also started a hunger strike with Abu Al-Khair, who was his lawyer and brother-in-law, to protest being kept in solitary confinement in prison, where he is serving a ten-year sentence.

On 11th February 2020, Al-Omair announced that he was ending his hunger strike in a letter that was leaked from Al-Ha'ir Political Prison and published by ALQST for Human Rights Organisation. In his letter, he said,

“I am suspending my hunger strike temporarily, while sticking to my position in firmly refusing to be tried before the Criminal Court specialised in terrorism cases and under the anti-terrorism law and other laws similar to it, I am not a terrorist, I have an opinion and exercised my right to freedom of expression."

He began his hunger strike on 22nd December 2019. 

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.