Last Updated: Monday, 28 July 2014, 16:37 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Saudi Arabia, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b044.html [accessed 29 July 2014]
Comments This report covers the events of 1996
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

The Saudi government, an absolute monarchy, continued to violate a broad array of internationally recognized civil and political rights. It allowed no criticism, political parties, or other potential challenges to its rule. The government employed arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention, torture, corporal and capital punishment to suppress and intimidate opposition.

Women faced institutionalized discrimination affecting their freedom of movement and association and their right to equality in employment and education. Labor laws banned the right to organize or bargain collectively. Many foreign workers, especially domestic workers, worked under oppressive conditions as the government and the courts provided little protection from exploitative employers.

Throughout 1996, the conduct of criminal trials fell far short of international norms. Saudi law did not guarantee detainees the right to counsel, made no provision for notifying families of arrests, and imposed no maximum time limit on the duration of pre-trial detention. Article 4 of the Basic Law of 1992 waived the few protections offered detainees for being held in connection with "crimes involving national security," a category so broadly defined as potentially to extend to nonviolent opposition to the government. Article 20 of Imprisonment and Detention Law No. 31 of 1978 established flogging, indefinite solitary confinement, and deprivation of family visits and of correspondence as means of disciplining pre-trial detainees. There were reports that judges often accepted uncorroborated forced confessions as the sole basis for conviction.

The trial and execution of four persons held responsible for the November 13, 1995 bombing of the Saudi Arabian National Guard training center in Riyadh highlighted some of the deficiencies of the criminal justice system. That blast killed six persons, including five U.S. military personnel, and wounded sixty. On April 22, Saudi television broadcasted the "confessions" of four Saudis – Abd al-Aziz Naser al-Mi‘tham, Riyad Suleiman Ishaq al-Hajri, Muslih Ali A'idah al-Shamrani, and Khalid Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sa‘id – arrested in connection with the bombing. According to Amnesty International, the four had reportedly been arrested two months before the announcement and subjected to torture. Their confessions were almost identical, and all implicated Dr. Muhammad al-Mas‘ari of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), a London-based opposition group whose sharp denunciations of the Saudi government are regularly faxed to recipients in many countries including Saudi Arabia. The government executed the four, supposedly after a trial, on May 31.

Those doubting the authenticity of the confessions tended to view the implication of al-Mas‘ari in the Riyadh attack as one of a series of Saudi government efforts to discredit and suppress him and the CDLR. These efforts included an attempt to pressure the U.K. to deport him (see below). According to the CDLR, on August 25 and 28 Saudi authorities arrested five of al-Mas‘ari's close relatives living in Saudi Arabia, and had not released them by early October.

Shaikh Safar bin Abd al-Rahman al-Hawali and Shaikh Salman bin Fahd al-Audah, two prominent Sunni clerics arrested in 1994, remained in detention without charge or trial. The American Islamic Group, a California-based nongovernmental organization, stated that repeated efforts by various groups to obtain official information about the basis for the clerics' detention were fruitless. According to the CDLR, Shaikh al-Audah led a hunger strike in April to protest his continued detention and the deterioration of conditions in al-Hayer prison, where he was being held.

The June 25 bombing at the King Abdul Aziz base at al-Khobar, which killed nineteen U.S. military personnel and injured 386, was followed by a campaign of arrest and detention of suspected opposition activists. Hundreds of warrantless arrests were carried out in al-Qatif, Sayhat, Turaif, al-Jarudy, Um al-Hamam, and al-Awamiya by the Directorate of General Investigations (al-Mabahith al-Amma, or simply al-Mabahith), the secret police of the Ministry of Interior. By early October, the campaign had not ended, with up to 2,000 persons remaining in detention, according to Saudis who monitor human rights developments in Saudi Arabia.

The government has long discriminated against the Shi‘a community, which comprised about ten percent of Saudi Arabia's population and resided primarily in the Eastern Province. Shi‘a faced unequal access to social services and government jobs, especially in the national security sector. The government rarely permitted the private construction of Shi‘a mosques or community centers, and even sought to prohibit Shi‘a religious instruction in private homes.

In March 1996 Saudi authorities initiated a campaign of arrests and detentions in the Shi‘a community. By early September, twenty-three Shi‘a clerics and religious scholars were in custody, according to the Alliance of Clergymen of Hijaz (Tajammu‘ Ulema' al-Hijaz), a clandestine opposition group. The government also seized many persons' passports at airports and border crossing points without legal justification, arbitrarily limiting their freedom to travel.

In early October, an estimated 200 Shi‘a political prisoners remained in detention, according to independent Saudi sources monitoring human rights developments in Saudi Arabia. One case that gave particular cause for concern was that of eighteen-year-old Muhammad al-Zein al-Wa'il of the Awali district of Madina. According to the London-based Al-Haramain Islamic Information Center, al-Wa'il was arrested by Saudi forces in July and subsequently held incommunicado. During a prior arrest in 1995, the Mabahith had accused him of insulting the Prophet and his companions, an accusation sometimes leveled against Shi‘a and which carries the death penalty. During his prior detention, he suffered physical and psychological abuse to such an extent that he required hospitalization after his release, according to the Center.

Non-Saudi detainees were also mistreated and denied due process. Human Rights Watch/Middle East interviewed an American engineer detained in July in the course of a business trip to Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities arrested him at the airport upon his arrival and detained him in prisons in three different Saudi cities for a total of thirty-eight days. According to the engineer, who requested anonymity, his interrogators said that they had no charges against him but merely wanted information he allegedly had obtained about Saudi opposition groups when he was living in Saudi Arabia. He stated that during most of his detention he was held in solitary confinement and received insufficient food and medication. At one point his interrogators threatened to beat him. For thirty days they refused him any contact with his family, a lawyer, or the U.S. embassy. Saudi authorities only confirmed his detention to the U.S. consulate in Dammam seven days after his arrest.

The government owned all domestic radio and television stations and allowed the domestic privately-owned print media no margin to criticize. The government controlled senior staffing decisions at publications as well as their editorial content. Topics such as corruption, arms deals, and the country's financial difficulties were off-limits. Private satellite dishes were outlawed, but were unofficially tolerated.

The Right to Monitor

Saudi controls on freedom of expression and harsh suppression of dissent meant that no human rights organizations could operate in Saudi territory. Mail or telephone contact with persons in Saudi Arabia that touched on criticism of the government posed significant dangers to Saudi correspondents. No international human rights organization has in recent years been authorized to conduct a mission to Saudi Arabia. In October 1995, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar ibn Sultan extended an informal invitation to Human Rights Watch to visit Saudi Arabia. Follow-up phone calls subsequently made by Human Rights Watch to determine the modalities of the visit went unanswered.

The Saudi government's pressure on opposition organizations, as well as groups involved in human rights reporting, extended beyond its borders. Fearing Saudi efforts to have them deported and reprisals against relatives in Saudi Arabia, some individuals involved in London-based human rights and opposition groups chose to operate anonymously.

Foreign journalists required visas to enter Saudi Arabia and were often refused access.

The Role of the International Community

United Kingdom

In January, the Home Office announced that the U.K. had decided to refuse without substantive consideration the application of Dr. Muhammad al-Mas‘ari (see above) for political asylum. It sought instead to deport him to Dominica, which had agreed to take him.

This move came as a result of pressure from British defense contractors who were alarmed by Saudi threats, made both in public and private, that Saudi Arabia would cut lucrative defense contracts with British firms if al-Mas‘ari were allowed to continue his opposition activities in the U.K. The Times (London) quoted Ann Widdecombe of the Home Office as saying, "British interests as a whole do require his removal. We have got enormous export considerations." Britain sold over US $2.2 billion worth of goods to Saudi Arabia in 1995.

The deportation effort was blocked by the Immigration Appellate Board, which on March 5 ordered the Home Office to reconsider al-Mas‘ari's asylum claim on the merits, ruling that the government had tried to "circumvent for diplomatic and trade reasons" its obligations under the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The government subsequently abandoned this effort and granted al-Mas‘ari the right to remain in the U.K. for four additional years. Subsequently, Defense Secretary Michael Portillo said in an interview with the Arab press that London was searching for another country that would take al-Mas‘ari.

United States

Saudi Arabia is the base for approximately 5,000 U.S. soldiers and is also a leading customer for U.S. arms and other exports. As in the past, the U.S. subordinated human rights concerns to maintaining the political and trade status quo. Besides the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, the U.S. rarely if ever raised publicly Saudi Arabia's human rights record. Instead, U.S. policy emphasized the defense of the Saudi government against regional and internal opponents.

The Country Reports chapter reflected this emphasis. While it contained a detailed and relatively comprehensive overview of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, it was marred by attempts to discredit the opposition while bolstering the government's legitimacy. For example, it stated, without substantiation, that the government "enforces adherence to the precepts of a rigorously conservative form of Islam – a position that enjoys near-consensus support among Saudi citizens." And while the official brand of intolerant Islam was "rigorously conservative" opposition groups facing government repression were characterized as "rigidly fundamentalist."

On April 22, after the announcement of the confessions of persons detained in connection with the Riyadh bombing case (see above), U.S. Ambassador Raymond Mabus stated that he was "extremely gratified that the government of Saudi Arabia has arrested four people responsible for the bombing," The New York Times reported. The ambassador thus implied that the detainees were guilty before this had been proven at trial.

The U.S. government participated in the investigations into the al-Khobar bombing by sending sixty agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to assist the Saudis. While FBI Director Louis Freeh on many occasions publicly criticized the Saudis for not allowing the FBI access to the suspects, he did not publicly voice any concern over Saudi Arabia's mistreatment of detainees and its failure to adhere to due-process standards in criminal investigations.

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