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Saudi Arabia

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Last updated on 30.10.2021 at 07:00

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Severe disconnect between carefully curated international image & suppression of civil society

Severe disconnect between carefully curated international image & suppression of civil society

The Saudi authorities release a man who was sentenced to death as a child for protest-related crimes; trial begins against 10 Egyptian citizens in relation to organising a public symposium on the war of 6th October 1973; report on Saudi Arabia's progress in implementing last UPR recommendations documents a shocking lack of action on 258 recommendations to improve human rights, many of which were accepted by the Saudi authorities during the last UPR cycle in 2018

Peaceful Assembly

The Saudi authorities have released a man who was sentenced to death as a child for protest-related crimes. Ali al-Nimr was detained at the age of 17 in 2012 during anti-government protests by the kingdom’s Shia Muslim minority. He was found guilty of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “repeating some chants against the state” before being condemned to death by crucifixion and beheading, followed by the public display of his body in 2014. Al-Nimr is the nephew of the prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed for terrorism offences by Saudi authorities in 2016. The Sheikh was a vocal supporter of the Arab Spring-inspired protests that took place in the Eastern Province in 2011. Human Rights Watch reported that after his arrest in 2012, Saudi authorities refused to let al-Nimr’s family visit him for four months, took nine months to present him before a judge, and did not inform his family of his first court hearing, 13 months later. He was also denied a lawyer during interrogations and initial trial hearings.

Expression

The trial of 10 Egyptian citizens, who are members of the Nubian community in Riyadh, began on 10th November 2021. Adel Sayed Ibrahim Fakir, Dr Farajallah Ahmed Yousif, Jamal Abdullah Masri, Mohammed Fathallah Jumaa, Hashim Shater, Ali Jumaa Ali Bahr, Saleh Jumaa Ahmed, Abdulsalam Juma Ali, Abdullah Jumaa Ali Bahr and Wael Ahmed Hassan were first arrested on 25th October 2019 in retaliation against their decision to organise a public symposium on the war of 6th October 1973. The Egyptian citizens are being held in Asir Prison in the city of Abha, where they are not allowed to receive visits or telephone calls from their families. In a joint statement from 11th November 2021, six human rights organisations condemned the detention and trial of the 10 Egyptian Nubians, highlighting the grossly unfair nature of the proceedings, which are being conducted without adequate defence lawyers and without the detainees being fully informed of the charges against them.

On 5th October 2021, ALQST, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Martin Ennals Foundation published a 27-page report on Saudi Arabia’s progress as the country reaches the half-way point of its latest Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle. The report documents a shocking lack of action on 258 recommendations to improve human rights, many of which were accepted by the Saudi authorities during the last UPR cycle in 2018. In particular, the systematic abuse of vague counter-terrorism and cybercrime legislation to arbitrarily arrest and detain human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience demonstrates a flagrant disregard of UPR recommendations to “revise all [restrictive] legislation” and “ensure the necessary independence of the judiciary”. Furthermore, despite the authorities’ acceptance of recommendations to take "steps to prevent torture, cruel and degrading treatment in prisons and detention centres", the use of torture and ill-treatment continues with impunity.

This damning indictment of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record comes in stark contrast to the European Union’s recent endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s “modernisation drive” during a meeting between the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, in Riyadh in October 2021. The meeting resulted in the signing of a cooperation agreement between the EU and Saudi Arabia to reinforce ties through regular consultation on political, socioeconomic, security and other issues.

Saudi Arabia’s recent takeover of the Premier League football club, Newcastle United, represents a further attempt by the Saudi authorities to put a positive and modernising spin on the kingdom’s international reputation. In October 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman used the Saudi sovereign wealth fund he chairs to buy Newcastle United for a reported £300 million. Human Rights Watch criticised this move as an example of Saudi Arabia’s “sports washing strategy” and efforts to “distract from its serious human rights abuses by taking over events that celebrate human achievement.”

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.