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Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1993
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - Saudi Arabia, 1 January 1993, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca76c.html [accessed 2 September 2014]
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.

Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

The single major development in 1992 was King Fahd's adoption on March 1 of the Basic Law of Government, the Law of the Consultative Council and the Law of Provinces. In addition to its poor human rights practices, Saudi Arabia had no legal regime to protect human rights against arbitrary arrest, lengthy pretrial detention or physical abuse. Nor has the Kingdom acceded to most international human rights agreements, including the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. Because of this legal vacuum, human rights monitors were hoping that the long-promised constitutional reforms would address this void by providing an adequate formal mechanism to protect human rights.

Issued amid great fanfare, the Basic Law of Government – the closest that Saudi Arabia has ever come to adopting a constitution – was a disappointment. Article 26 provides that "the state shall protect human rights according to Shari'a," or Islamic law; this provision marked the first time in recent history that the government formally acknowledged the concept of citizens' rights vis-a-vis the state. However, in the few instances in which the new law refers to specific civil and political rights, the protection afforded is highly qualified or made conditional to the precepts of the Shari'a, which in Saudi Arabia is not codified in written statutes. The final nominal authority for the interpretation of the Shari'a is the Council of Senior Scholars.Composed of 18 clergymen appointed by the King, the Council has traditionally deferred to the King's interpretation in political matters, including those affecting human rights. Thus, under the Basic Law, the Saudi gove rnment still retains near complete discretion to define the content and scope of the rights it will respect.

The Saudi legal system is notorious for its due process deficiencies. Arrest and detention procedures are governed by Imprisonment and Detention Law No. 31 of 1978 and its 1982 bylaws issued by the Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef ibn Abdel Aziz. With few restrictions on the grounds or duration of pretrial detention, they allow detainees to be held indefinitely without trial or judicial review. Nor is there a requirement that family members be notified of an arrest. Although in recent years a family is often able to find out if one of its members is detained, formal notification is rare. This problem applies equally to Americans and other foreigners arrested in Saudi Arabia.

It is equally rare for a detainee to be informed of the charges against him or her. Saudi law permits interrogation of detainees without the benefit of counsel and contains no explicit ban on torture or cruel and inhuman punishment. Indeed, the use of force to elicit confessions is commonplace in the Saudi security system. This may be in part because of the Saudi legal system's over-reliance on confessions. By law, flogging, indefinite solitary confinement, and deprivation of family visits are explicitly sanctioned as methods of disciplining prisoners.

The Saudi government continues to detain without trial scores of alleged political and security offenders, many of whom have languished in prison for over four years. Over 40 of these prisoners are Shi'a Saudis who were accused of voicing critical views of the government's anti-Shi'a policies or belonging to banned political organizations. At least nine members of the Murra tribe have been in prison since October 1991 for their peaceful opposition to a government-ordered resettlement of residents of al-Sauda, a small hamlet populated entirely by members of the Murra tribe and located on the road to Qatar. Families of the detainees believe that most of them have been beaten and that two – Hamad Muhammed al-Qab'an and 'Obaid ibn Qab'an – risk being executed. Such fears were heightened by recent border tensions – including a military skirmish in October – between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where the tribe exercises considerable influence.

Prolonged detention without trial was also reported of scores involved in commercial disputes or business failures, some of in prison for as long as 13 years. Hundreds of foreigners accused of violating the stringent visa regulations, by overstaying their residency permits or changing their employers, are also held in crowded, substandard deportation facilities throughout the Kingdom.

Despite occasional royal orders instructing detention authorities not to torture prisoners – usually issued after the death of a detainee due to torture – there have been numerous reports of torture in Saudi detention facilities. For example, in the chapter on Saudi Arabia in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1991, issued in January 1992, the U.S. State Department described "credible reports of injuries and the deaths of at least two, and possibly more, persons caused by beating or the use of excessive force while being held in official custody. In addition, there was a credible report of the torture of several foreigners in Saudi military custody."

During 1992, Middle East Watch has received a number of reports of torture in custody, some of which led to death. On March 28 in Riyadh, Muhammed Fahad al-Mutairi, a Saudi bank employee, was arrested by the authorities on suspicion of embezzlement. Four days later, he died in custody after being severely beaten. On April 2 in Jiddah, Abdullahi Abbas, a Ghanaian citizen, was arrested for overstaying his visa. He died in custody on April 16. Witnesses reported to Middle East Watch that he too had been severely beaten during his imprisonment.

Middle East Watch knows of no case in which an officer accused of torture has been prosecuted or tried, an official inaction that effectively condones further abuse. Saudi authorities have stymied efforts to document mistreatment of prisoners by keeping its investigations secret and by declining to respond to inquiries by families or human rights groups. In addition, the Saudi government has almost never allowed independent observersto visit its detention facilities. The only exception was during the Desert Storm military campaign in January 1991, when after months of refusal, it allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Iraqi prisoners of war.

Flogging, amputations and beheading are also used by the Saudi legal system for the punishment of a variety of crimes, including the expression of critical views of the government or the making of controversial statements on religious matters. On September 3, Sadeq Abdel-Karim Mal-Allah, a Saudi Shi'a, was beheaded in public in the Eastern town of al-Qatif. He had been arrested in 1988, at the age of 17, and accused of "slandering God, His Prophet and the Holy Qur'an." According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Interior, a royal order was issued ratifying the decision of Shari'a courts ordering Mal-Allah's execution based on his alleged slanderous statements.

Following the execution of Mal-Allah, the family of Abdel-Khaleq Abdel-Jalil al-Janbi, a Shi'a student, learned that he, too, had been accused of blasphemy and threatened with execution. In January, al-Janbi and another Shi'a student, Turki Muhammed al-Turki, had been arrested by the Directorate of General Investigations after a debate at King Abdel-Aziz University in Jiddah in which they disputed Wahhabi views regarding the Shi'a faith. Wahhabism, the Saudi official dogma, holds as heretical most Shi'a interpretations of Islam.

During October, three Shi'a Saudis – Muhammed al-Shabib, Abdel-Wahed Ahmed Hussein al-Shaikh and Hmaide al-'Aisan – were arrested and accused of propagating religious views contrary to the received dogma. While al-Shabib was released, the other two remained in prison through November.

A number of Shi'a religious students and teachers, apprehended in previous years, remained in prison in 1992, having been accused of voicing disagreement with Wahhabism. Those still in prison include Ali Abu-Ouais, arrested in November 1990, and Sayyed Yaseen al-Sayigh, in detention since October 1989. Hamza al-Mosawi, arrested in October 1991 for his religious views, was released in September 1992.

Corporal punishment continued to be applied by Shari'a courts in 1992. In June, Yousef Khouri, a 63-year-old Lebanese citizen, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and 500 lashes. He was accused of possessing of 12 bottles of whisky. The sentence was passed in a summary proceeding in a Shari'a court without the benefit of legal counsel.

Saudi Arabia also continued its policy of executing drug traffickers, after proceedings that fall far short of international standards on fair trials. On October 4, General Mohammed al-Maleki, a drug enforcement official, stated that, "more than 38 people of different nationalities have been executed since the death penalty was enforced against drug smugglers" in 1987. Most were convicted without the benefit of legal counsel.

Human rights abuses are facilitated in Saudi Arabia by the absence of an independent judiciary and the lack of scrutiny by a representative body or a free press. Although the March 1992 Basic Law of Government formally recognizes, for the first time, the principle of an independent judiciary, Middle East Watch continued to receive reports from within the judiciary that judges periodically come under pressure from senior members of the royal family and other government officials. Not surprisingly, they remain afraid to check official abuse of power. Moreover, under the Saudi government's interpretation of the Shari'a, the King is the spiritual as well as temporal head of the community (waliyy al-amr). He thus has broad discretion to overrule judicial decisions. Provincial governors in Saudi Arabia also have the authority to review court decisions.

Because of the blurred distinction between civil and criminal law in Saudi Arabia, detention and torture are common even in cases of commercial and labor disputes. This is compounded by the royal family's deep involvement in many business enterprises as well as its control of all senior governmental posts. The prime minister, his two deputies and the ministers of interior, defense, foreign affairs and their deputies are all members of the royal family. All the provincial governors of Saudi Arabia are members of the royal family or of the Sudairi family, maternal relatives of King Fahd.

The royal family's dominance of the legislative and executive branches of government, its significant influence on the judiciary and its commandingposition in the business community have led to a concentration of power that has few parallels in the world – a state of affairs that has been immunized from criticism by the absence of a free press or parliament. This monopoly of power has left government officials and other prominent citizens, primarily members of the royal family and their associates, free to abuse their positions.

The March 1992 laws codifying the largely unwritten legal system, including the Basic Law of Government and the Consultative Council Law, have not significantly changed the lack of legal protection of human rights. In fact, far from adhering to international standards on civil and political rights, these new laws do little more than codify royal authoritarianism, and deprive Saudi citizens of even the modest electoral rights they already had.

By virtue of the new laws, Saudi citizens today have fewer civil and political rights than they had in 1926. Their right to vote for national and provincial councils is eliminated; the Consultative Council is stripped of the little power it had left; rights of women and minorities are totally ignored; existing severe restrictions on thought, religion, speech, assembly and association have been maintained; and no ban is articulated on extrajudicial killings, torture or cruel or inhuman punishment. The new laws expand King Fahd's near absolute authority over both legislative and executive matters. They were drafted by an ad hoc committee headed by Prince Nayef, the King's brother who also heads the Interior Ministry, the government agency identified with most violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

The Law of the Consultative Council replaces the existing Consultative Council, established in 1926, with a new advisory group by the same name that was to be appointed by King Fahd by the beginning of September. By the end of November, only the president of the new Council had been appointed: Shaikh Muhammed ibn Jubair, who is a former minister of justice, a Shari'a judge and a long-time associate of King Fahd.

The King will have the right to dismiss any or all of the new council's 61 members. The Consultative Council is allowed to discuss and interpret laws, but has no power to legislate. The government is not required to submit its budget to the Council or consult it on important decisions. Its powers, such as they are, remain subordinated to those of the Council of Ministers, which is chaired by the King in his role as Prime Minister.

The new laws do not ban discrimination on the basis of gender or religious beliefs. Nor is there any remedy in the new laws for the notorious due process deficiencies of the Saudi penal system. Based on Shari'a as interpreted by government-appointed clergy, the unwritten criminal code does not permit defendants to have legal representation in the courtroom, even when facing the death penalty.

Comments by Saudi leaders indicate that the new statutes are not the beginning of a gradual process of democratization. Rather, they appear to be the maximum concessions that the ruling family is willing to grant in response to internal demands and external pressures.

In 1992, Saudi Arabia continued to stifle the expression of views critical of its own on matters both secular and religious. During late 1991 and early 1992, scores of Islamist opponents were rounded up by the secret police after they criticized the government in mosque sermons, secret leaflets and clandestinely distributed audiocassettes. A number of Islamist leaders who publicly criticized the government were dismissed from their government jobs and banned from travel or from public speaking.

In July, a 47-page Memorandum of Advice signed by 109 Islamist intellectuals was distributed in the Kingdom, calling for reform of the public administration and increased accountability of government officials. The signers also sought greater autonomy for Islamic preachers, including freedom of expression, as well as an end to torture and arbitrary arrests and searches. Saudi authorities questioned and threatened a number of the signatories and attacked the banned memorandum in the official media. King Fahd also convened the Council of Senior Scholars which subsequently issued a strong condemnation of the memorandum. The Council, in turn, was criticized by a number of the Kingdom's more independent clergy. Following the distribution of the Memorandum of Advice, more Islamists were formally banned from publicly speaking against the government and a number of them were suspended from their government jobs.

The government owns and operates all radio and television stations in the Kingdom, and it keeps the privately owned local press on a very short leash, not allowing it to publish any critical views of government policies. A number of foreign publications were barred from the country in 1992 for publishing such views. In September, Khalil al-Fezai', editor-in-chief of al-Yaum (Today), was dismissed by the Minister of Information, who is authorized under the press code to take such action without the necessity of a hearing. It was widely believed that his dismissal was prompted by his approval of articles perceived as critical of policies of Prince Muhammed ibn Fahd, the King's son, who is also the governor of the Eastern Province, where the newspaper is based.

During 1992, the royal family and its close associates expanded their influence over major regional and international news organizations. For example, the new owner of the international news agency United Press International is a brother-in-law of King Fahd, who also owns MBC, a London-based, worldwide satellite radio and television network. Such control, in addition to majority or controlling ownership in major dailies in the region, strengthens considerably the Saudi government's near monopoly over news reaching Saudi Arabia about the country and other subjects of interest to its rulers.

The long-standing Saudi policy of severely restricting access by foreign reporters to the Kingdom was reinstated during 1992 after a brief interlude before and after the Gulf War. Most applications by journalists from major U.S. and British television, radio and newspaper outlets were turned down. It thus remains difficult to follow events in Saudi Arabia except through government channels.

The Right to Monitor

Since monitoring human rights violations is defined by the government as political activity, Saudi Arabian law and practice strictly prohibit such an undertaking. Saudi opposition political groups have had to work clandestinely inside the country or operate outside the Kingdom. A few affiliated human rights committees operate from Damascus, London, Tehran and the United States. Among these groups is the London-based International Committee for Human Rights in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. The Committee publishes occasional reports as well as Arabia Monitor, an English monthly started in 1992 and issued from Washington. Another affiliated magazine, Al-Jazeera al-Arabia (The Arabian Peninsula), an Arabic monthly issued in London, regularly publishes articles on human rights violations, especially those related to the Shi'a minority.

Following reports of the forced repatriation of close to 300 Iraqi refugees in December 1991, as well as violent clashes at the Rafha refugee camp in which a number of refugees were killed, Saudi Arabia permitted international organizations to expand their activities in the camps for Iraqi refugees. Since early 1992, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross have made regular visits to both the Rafha and al-Artawiyya camps and have been closely involved in resettling refugees. The United States, Iran, Sweden and Finland have agreed to accept several thousand refugees from these camps in 1992 and 1993. The United States has set a quota of 3,500 refugees for the two years.

Requests by Middle East Watch to visit Saudi Arabia, to interview refugees about conditions in Iraq and to take up issues on Saudi human rights practices with local authorities, went unanswered in 1992. Similarly, Saudi authorities have failed to respond to the numerous inquiries that Middle East Watch made during the year on specific incidents of human rights violations.

U.S. Policy

The United States, by virtue of a long and intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia spanning over 50 years, has been in a position to help effect an improvement in the dismal human rights record. But the U.S. government has rarely criticized Saudi violations. Human rights principles appear to have been subordinated to strategic and economic interests, in the mistaken belief that promotion of human rights and participatory democracy in the Kingdom would have a deleterious effect on those interests.

The broad range of cooperation between the two countries is premised on a U.S. commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia, a commitment demonstrated by the military campaign to reverse the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait. President Bush's original justification for dispatching U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, in August 1990, was the perceived threat of an Iraqi invasion of the Kingdom. Post-war cooperation has involved extensive contacts between the two countries on future security arrangements in the Gulf, Saudi defense plans, the fate of the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and economic aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Bush administration has identified defense of the Arabian Peninsula a key determinant of U.S. policy in the Middle East. On September 11, Edward Djerejian, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, told the National Association of Arab Americans:

America has two key sets of policy goals in the Near East. The first has to do with a lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors; the second-the creation of viable security arrangements for our friends and allies on the Arabian Peninsula.

On October 1, in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Secretary Djerejian explained further the purpose of these close ties. After outlining levels of cooperation with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which he praised as much closer than before the Gulf War, Secretary Djerejian said, "We have now concluded or renewed agreements with four of the GCC states and have excellent working arrangements with all of them.... It is important to understand that the purpose of both arms sales and collective security measures are to deter threats to our shared interests, and to raise the threshold of future requirements for direct U.S. military actions."

Cooperation between the two governments has included bilateral security arrangements and the provision of advanced U.S. weapons in a package totaling $14 billion for 1992-93. The U.S. military holds periodic joint exercises with Saudi forces, maintains an enhanced naval presence in the Persian Gulf, prepositions substantial materiel in the country, and has unrestricted access to Saudi facilities.

This close cooperation and the military alliance that is projected to last long into the future, was underscored by U.S. Rear Admiral Raynor A. K. Taylor, who told The Washington Post in September: "We've got ships going into ports left and right. We've got ships and airplanes doing bilateral exercises left and right.... Having to have a 90-day advance notice to go into Jiddah or Dammam, that doesn't exist anymore.... The rapport and working relationships are a lot healthier."

On September 11, as part of this long-standing armament program, President Bush announced the sale of 72 F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. The $9 billion deal, which includes 48 modified F-15E Strike Eagles – planes that have never before been exported – came despite the President's 1991 initiative promising to curb the flow of arms to the Middle East.

Considering this special relationship between the two countries and the enormous goodwill the Saudi government has towards the United States, it is remarkable that the Bush administration did not utilize its leverage to bring about a significant change in the Saudi human rights record. A sustained engagement with the Saudi government aimed at improving this record would enhance the U.S. position in the country, especially among members of the nascent reform movement. In Middle East Watch's judgement, such engagement would probably strengthen, rather than weaken, the special relationship between the two countries, particularly in the long run.

As in previous years, U.S. officials refrained in 1992 from voicing public criticism of Saudi human rights violations, some of which were catalogued, in some detail, in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991. Even when victims of abuse are American citizens, U.S. officials have shied away from publicly criticizing Saudi human rights practices.

The U.S. embassy has complained occasionally that Saudi authoritiesrarely notify it of the arrest of American citizens. According to State Department officials interviewed by Middle East Watch in September 1992, Saudi Arabia still declines to sign a standard bilateral consular agreement to allow for immediate access to American detainees, even though U.S. regulations provide Saudi consular officers with immediate access to Saudi detainees in U.S. jails.

During 1992, the Bush Administration continued its efforts to prevent Scott Nelson, an American safety engineer who had worked at a Saudi government-owned hospital, from obtaining civil damages in U.S. courts for unlawful detention and torture he suffered while in Saudi Arabia. Following a call for help contained in a letter from Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Bush administration filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the Saudi position that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction in the case under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA). Despite the duty under international law to provide remedies to torture victims, the administration adopted a cramped reading of the FSIA provisions that a lower appellate court had found allowed Nelson's suit.

The Administration also lobbied members of the House Judiciary Committee to stymie efforts to amend the FSIA. In May 1991, an amendment to the law was introduced in the House of Representatives that would have made explicitly clear that American victims of torture and the family of victims of extrajudicial killings abroad are entitled to a civil remedy in U.S. courts. Despite the administration's opposition, the amendment was adopted by the House Judiciary Committee on September 23, 1992, although it ultimately never reached the House floor.

U.S. officials went out of their way to praise the establishment of an appointed Consultative Council and the adoption of the Basic Law of Government – actions that merely expanded royal authority, and outlawed democracy and elections as Western imports not suitable for Saudi citizens. Secretary Djerejian told a House subcommittee in March that, following the adoption of the laws, President Bush wrote to King Fahd "to commend his initiative." Secretary Djerejian also described the laws as "a very important statement on expanding the participation of the citizens in the Saudi governmental structure and processes." The U.S. government, the Secretary added, had welcomed "King Fahd's decision to establish a consultative council ... and his reaffirmation of limits on governmental interference in citizens' private lives, in accordance with Saudi religion and tradition." He also asserted that "rights of Saudi citizens are enumerated" in the new laws.

This praise was jarring in light of the statement by King Fahd that: "The democratic system that is predominant in the world is not a suitable system for the peoples of our region. Our peoples' makeup and unique qualities are different from those of the rest of the world.... The system of free elections is not suitable to our country.... In may view, Western democracies may be suitable in their own countries but they do not suit other countries." Secretary Djerejian, while noting without criticizing that the Consultative Council would not be an elected body, suggested in congressional testimony that in evaluating the Saudi laws "you have to remember the environment in the Arab world" and "Saudi religion and tradition." This relativism stood in sharp contrast to U.S. claims of support elsewhere of "genuine periodic elections."

The Work of Middle East Watch

In 1992, Middle East Watch continued its close monitoring of human rights developments in the Kingdom. It also continued its attempts to engage the government formally in a dialogue on human rights matters. On a number of occasions during the year, Middle East Watch communicated with both the Saudi and U.S. governments over a number of developments, seeking clarifications or providing criticisms. Middle East Watch's requests to send a mission to the Kingdom have yet to be answered.

In May, Middle East Watch issued Empty Reforms: Saudi Arabia's New Basic Laws, a 65-page report on the constitutional changes announced by King Fahd on March 1. The report demonstrated that the laws introduced by Saudi Arabia do not provide recognition or protection of human rights. The report also pointed out that in some key areas, such as elections and the mandate of the Consultative Council, the announced changes were a step backwards.

In September, Human Rights Watch filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court as amicus curiae in support of Scott Nelson, an American worker who is suing the government of Saudi Arabia for torture and arbitrary arrest during his employment with a Saudi government agency. The Bush administration filed a brief with the court supporting the Saudi government's contention that U.S. courts lack jurisdiction under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). In 1991, Nelson had won an appeals court ruling that U.S. courts have jurisdiction under the "commercial activities" exception to FSIA. Human Rights Watch argued that the appeal court judgement was correct because torture and arbitrary detention are routinely used in Saudi Arabia to resolve commercial disputes involving Saudi government interests.

Also in September, in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East and the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Middle East Watch briefed the two subcommittees on conditions in Saudi Arabia. It urged the U.S. government to use its good offices to improve Saudi Arabia's observance of internationally recognized human rights.

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