CIVICUS

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Saudi Arabia

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Last updated on 21.01.2021 at 09:03

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Saudi Arabia continues to detain, harass and torture human rights defenders

Saudi Arabia continues to detain, harass and torture human rights defenders

Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentences prominent Saudi woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison; human rights defender Mohammad Abdullah Al-Otaibi sentenced to another year in prison; Saudi-American medical doctor Dr Walid Fitaihi sentenced to six years in prison on vague charges; Human Rights Watch criticises proposed reforms to the kafala system for excluding 3.7 million domestic workers;

Expression

On 28th December 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court sentenced prominent Saudi woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul to five years and eight months in prison. The sentence includes a suspension of two years and ten months in addition to the time already served (since May 2018) which would see Al-Hathloul’s release in February 2021. She is also required to serve three years of probation during which time she could be arrested for any perceived illegal activity. She will also be placed under a five-year travel ban.

The sentence was condemned for conflating activism with terrorism by the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, which consists of Equality Now, Women’s March Global, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights Bahrain (ADHRB), Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and CIVICUS. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), GCHR, ALQST for Human Rights and the League for Human Rights also criticised the Saudi regime’s persecution of Loujain Al-Hathloul, Nassima Al-Saddah, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, Miyaa Al-Zahrani and Mohammed Al-Bajadi, all of whom remain behind bars since 2018. Commemorating one year after the first Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, the organisations called on those racing in the Rally from 3rd to 15th January 2021 to demonstrate their solidarity with the women who spearheaded the #WomensRight2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hathloul’s case was initially tried in Riyadh’s criminal court on trumped up charges including destabilising national security and working with foreign entities against the state, before being transferred to the Specialised Criminal Court (also known as the Terrorism Court) on 25th November 2020. However, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the family was then informed that the case was summarily sent back to the Criminal Court, and had multiple hearings in December 2020. On 24th December, the Court again postponed her hearing until 28th December 2020.

Al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina Al-Hathloul condemned the judicial harassment of her sister, stating:

“My sister must be released … All she has done is ask for women to be treated with the dignity and freedom that should be their right. They say she is a terrorist – in reality she is a humanitarian, an activist and a woman who simply wants a better fairer world.”

Human Rights Watch similarly condemned the “rushing through” of the “closed trial” of the prominent women’s human rights defender and highlighted the irony of the opening of her trial on 10th December, International Human Rights Day.

In separate developments, on 8th December 2020, a Saudi court sentenced Saudi-American medical doctor Dr Walid Fitaihi to six years in prison on vague charges including “breaking allegiance with the ruler” by “sympathising” with a “terrorist organisation,” which are tied to his peaceful political views and expression. Dr Fitaihi was arrested in November 2017 and held without charge or trial until August 2019, when he was finally brought to trial on vague charges including sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly criticising Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with only a few vague tweets provided as evidence.

Along with seven of his family members who are also US citizens, he has been subjected to a travel ban since November 2017. Human Rights Watch also reported that the Saudi government has frozen the family’s assets since 2017 and that Dr Fitaihi remains free pending appeal.

Association

On 1st December 2020, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced human rights defender Mohammad Abdullah Al-Otaibi to another year in prison, including six months for travelling to Qatar in 2017 and another six months for tweets he posted during that period, reports GCHR. This is in addition to a previous judgment by the SCC which had sentenced Al-Otaibi to 14 years in prison and his colleague Abdulla Madhi Al-Attawi to seven years in prison on 25th January 2018. The two were charged, among other things, with participating in setting up a human rights organisation (the Union for Human Rights) and announcing it, prior to obtaining an official permit; preparing and signing petitions and publishing them on the Internet, which harms the reputation of the Kingdom and its justice and security institutions; publishing information about their interrogation despite signing pledges not to do so; spreading chaos and inciting public opinion; re-tweeting a tweet on Twitter after it was published by a member of the Civil and Political Rights Association in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA), human rights defender Issa Al-Hamed, who is currently in prison.

Separately, domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, including personal drivers, continue to be subjected to abuse, exploitation and forced labour as a result of the notorious kafala system, which ties the legal status of millions of workers to individual sponsors. In October 2020, the Saudi authorities announced new reforms to the kafala system that would be introduced in March 2021. According to the authorities, the reforms will ease restrictions relating to migrant workers’ ability to change employers or leave the country. However, Human Rights Watch criticised the proposed reforms for excluding 3.7 million domestic workers, many of whom work in private households. Therefore, although signalling a step in the right direction, the proposed reforms ultimately fail to fully abolish this exploitative and abusive labour system.

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.