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Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1995
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 - Saudi Arabia, 1 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fcab71e.html [accessed 22 August 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 1994

Human Rights Developments

In 1994 Saudi Arabia witnessed the largest roundup in recent history of opposition activists and a new low in the dismal human rights record of the Kingdom. Arbitrary arrest, detention without trial and ill-treatment of prisoners remained the norm during the year, especially for those accused of political offenses. Several hundred Islamist opponents are known to have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without trial. Scores of drug traffickers were executed, usually by beheading, after summary trials. The ban on free speech, assembly and association was strictly enforced; violators were jailed, deported, banned from travel or dismissed from their government positions. Restrictions on the employment and movement of women were strictly observed, and harassment of non-Muslims and discrimination against the Shi'a continued unabated.

In response to criticism abroad of the Kingdom's human rights record, the government orchestrated a campaign in the media it controls against human rights principles, which were dismissed as anti-Islamic, Western values. Criticism of human rights abuses in the country was occasionally described as part of "Zionist intrigue of the Israel lobby."

The most significant development in 1994 was the government's crackdown on peaceful dissent by Islamist groups, the largest in recent history. In a campaign begun in April but intensified in September, several hundred religious opponents of the government were arrested. In almost all cases, the arrests and accompanying searches were conducted without warrants and suspects were held without charge or trial. None of the detainees were allowed visits by legal counsel and most, for long periods after arrest, were denied family visits.

According to official statements, about one hundred and fifty of the Islamist detainees were suspected supporters of Shaikh Salman al-Audah and Shaikh Safar al-Hawali, both university professors and religious leaders who had been banned from speaking in public and dismissed from their academic posts in September 1993. Those detained also included founders and supporters of the banned Committee to Defend Legitimate Rights (CDLR), established in May 1993 by Islamist jurists and professors. During May and June 1994, in an attempt to apply pressure and extract information, the government arrested relatives of CDLR spokesman Dr. Muhammed al-Mas'ari after he had fled the country and re-established the committee in London in April 1994. Others detained included religious leaders who signed a June 1994 statement critical of Saudi Arabia's reported support of Southern Yemeni separatists. Although no formal charges were filed against any of the detainees, government statements cited their public speaking in defiance of previous bans and "fomenting dissension and civil strife." Salman al-Audah's book Kissinger's Promise was cited in an official statement as evidence of subversion, as were audiocassettes and handbills distributed clandestinely, in defiance of government regulations.

Soon after the Islamist-inspired CDLR resumed its activities in exile in April 1994, the Directorate of General Investigations (DGI), the secret police known as al-Mabahith, began a campaign against all suspected Islamist opposition sympathizers, spokesmen and their family members. The campaign intensified during the summer, when prominent Islamists signed a strongly-worded statement, which was distributed widely, criticizing Saudi involvement in the Yemeni conflict. And on September 12, after Islamists pressured the government into boycotting the U.N. Conference on Population and Development, prominent leaders al-Audah and al-Hawali were arrested with a number of their followers. During the next weeks public protests were held in defiance of the government ban and hundreds more were arrested. By mid-November, the arrest campaign was still under way, with the arrest of many religious teachers, university professors, and others suspected of sympathy with the Islamist opposition.

In February, King Fahd ordered that Usama Bin Ladin, a prosperous businessman who helped finance the mujahideen of Afghanistan, be stripped of his Saudi citizenship and have his assets inside the country frozen. Scores of Bin Ladin's followers were detained without charges and most of the foreigners among them were summarily deported.

This crackdown on peaceful dissent belied the promises made by the government when the Basic Law of Government was adopted in March 1992. Although the law was hailed then by Saudi and United States officials as heralding a new era of respect for basic rights, the Saudi government's actions since its adoption proved that such hopes were premature.

In 1994, a government-appointed committee to investigate the violent events of March 1993 at the Rafha refugee camp exonerated camp officials of any wrongdoing. A confrontation there had resulted in the death of at least eight Iraqi refugees and three Saudi government employees and the injury of over 140 refugees. The uprising at the camp, located near the Iraqi-Saudi border, was triggered by the refusal of Saudi authorities to permit family members fleeing Iraq to join their relatives in the camp. To disperse the demonstrators, guards opened fire, killing one, after which refugees apparently set the camp administrative building on fire, resulting in the death of three civilian employees. When security forces subsequently opened fire to disperse the crowds and facilitate the extinguishing of the fire, eight more protesters were killed and hundreds were detained. Many of the detained are known to have been tortured, in an apparent attempt by the authorities to identify those who organized the protest.

Human Rights Watch/Middle East confirmed other reports during 1994 of torture and ill-treatment of detainees during interrogation by the secret police and the religious police. To compel prisoners to provide information they were frequently subjected to electric shock, falaqa (beating on the soles of the feet) and flogging with bamboo sticks. Ill-treatment included prolonged incommunicado detention, sleep deprivation, threats, and insults. Visits by family members or lawyers were often denied for long periods.

In an apparent response to a rise in drug use and other crimes, scores of drug smugglers – almost all foreigners – were beheaded during the first nine months of 1994 after proceedings that fell far short of international standards for fair trials. Most were not represented by lawyers at the trials or assisted in preparing their defense. In 1994, there was a marked increase in the application of corporal punishment, including flogging for a variety of crimes and amputations for theft. On one day in October, five Sudanese nationals had their right hands amputated as a penalty for theft.

Under the Imprisonment and Detention Law No. 31 of 1978 and its 1982 bylaws, issued by the Minister of Interior, detainees may be held indefinitely without trial or judicial review. Although families were often able to find out informally if one of their members had been detained, rarely was there formal notification. This problem applied equally to foreigners arrested in Saudi Arabia, many of whom had no family in Saudi Arabia to notice that they were missing. Saudi authorities did not notify foreign missions of the arrest of their nationals and declined to sign international or bilateral consular agreements mandating such notification or allowing immediate access by foreign consulates.

It was 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 the use of force to elicit confessions was commonplace in the Saudi security system. The law explicitly sanctions flogging, indefinite solitary confinement, and deprivation of family visits, as methods for disciplining prisoners.

Foreigners, estimated officially at about five million (27 percent of the population), faced special hardships, including a ban on travel within the country or abroad without written permission from their employers. Hundreds of foreigners accused of violating the stringent visa regulations by overstaying their residency permits or changing their employers were being held in crowded, substandard deportation facilities throughout the Kingdom. Most were subsequently expelled without judicial review. Since regulations required that aliens secure clearance from their former employers before being permitted to leave the country, many were kept in deportation facilities awaiting these clearances.

Human rights abuses were facilitated by the absence of an independent judiciary and the lack of scrutiny by an elected representative body or a free press. The royal family's concentration of power and the absence of a free press or parliament left government officials and members of the royal family immune to criticism and free to take advantage of their positions. In 1994, there were several reports of unpunished abuse by members of the royal family, including murder and beatings of ordinary citizens and foreign residents. No one has been charged with the murder in 1993 of two men on the estate of Prince Mish'al, King Fahd's brother.

In December 1993, the Consultative Council held its first meeting since it was appointed by King Fahd in the preceding August. Almost all of the sixty-one members of the new council were government loyalists, the majority of them longtime government employees. According to the Consultative Council Bylaws issued in August by King Fahd, the Council's members retain their positions in the executive branch while serving their terms in the Consultative Council. By virtue of its mandate, composition and bylaws, the Council did not appear likely to provide a forum for significant political participation or act as a check on human rights abuses. Although all of the Council's meetings – after the inaugural meeting – have been secret, Human Rights Watch/Middle East learned that the Council did not take any independent decisions; in at least one case, a decision was taken without debate in support of the government's plan to raise utility prices. Few officials were instructed by King Fahd to brief the council in private sessions, and no members are known to have questioned government policy in these sessions.

In 1994, buoyed by widespread dissatisfaction with the government's financial and foreign policies, Islamists intensified their public criticism of the government. In mosque sermons, books, leaflets and audiocassettes, they criticized corruption and favoritism and called for more political participation. Islamist spokesmen also sought greater autonomy for Islamic preachers, including freedom of expression, as well as an end to arbitrary arrests and searches. To combat this criticism, the government enforced its strict ban on public speaking, assembly, and association; in addition to arresting hundreds of Islamists, it dismissed many from their teaching jobs and banned many others from travel. It also introduced measures to tighten its control over the flow of information in and out of the country. In several statements issued by the Ministry of Interior, the government warned citizens and residents against publicly criticizing the state's "internal, foreign, financial, media or other policies," or "communicating with anyone outside the country, or any activist inside the country, by telephone or fax." The ban included religious sermons, university lectures and the distribution or ownership of hostile writings or audiocassettes.

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, preventing criticism of government policies. Foreign publications, including daily newspapers and weekly magazines, were barred from the country in 1994 for publishing such views. Although the ban on foreign journalists was slightly relaxed in October, most visa applications submitted during 1994 by journalists from major U.S. and British news organizations were turned down.

During 1994, the government expanded its considerable influence over major regional and international news organizations. Royal family members and their close associates had purchased key news organizations during the preceding few years, including United Press International; al-Hayat, a major daily in the Middle East; and MBC, a London-based satellite television network. The Ministry of Information signed an agreement with Radio Monte Carlo's Middle East Division, a major source of news in the Kingdom, to highlight positive elements of government policy. In November 1993, MBC acquired the Arab Network of America (ANA), previously a private radio and television cable network with services in most U.S. metropolitan areas. In the months after it changed owners, ANA cancelled, suspended or censored several programs deemed critical of Saudi Arabia. Also during 1994, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced plans to start an Arabic television service with the financial backing of a member of the Saudi royal family, whose company will have exclusive rights to retransmit the program to Saudi Arabia.

In March, a royal decree banned television satellite dishes, imposing a fine equivalent to U.S. $26,667 for possessing and $133,333 for importing the equipment. In June, in an apparent response to broadcast criticism of the government, the Ministry of Interior gave those who already owned dishes a month to re-export or otherwise dispose of them before imposing the fines. Also in March, another decree ordered the scrambling of television signals coming into the country. Foreign networks were instructed to transmit their signals to a central relay station owned by the Ministry of Information, which had the exclusive right to provide television programming "suitable for Saudi religious and social values."

The Right to Monitor

Since monitoring human rights violations is considered by the government as political activity, Saudi Arabian law and practice strictly prohibited such an undertaking. Associations of any kind wishing to report on human rights violations in the Kingdom had to work either clandestinely inside the country, at the risk of arrests, or operate outside the Kingdom. In 1994, the ability to monitor human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia was handicapped by the shutdown in the previous year of groups reporting abuses and the arrests of activists attempting to monitor violations.

However, new opposition groups established in 1994 outside the Kingdom provided a steady stream of news and commentary on violations of the rights of dissidents and government opponents. Since April, the banned Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a mainstream Islamist opposition group, has resumed its activities from London, publishing regular reports on arrests of Islamist activists. In May, the Advice and Reformation Committee was established in London, representing a more hardline Islamist faction led by Usama bin Ladin, a Saudi businessman known for his support of radical groups in the region.

In May, Muhamed al-Khilewi, a senior diplomat at the Saudi Arabian U.N. mission in New York, sought political asylum in the U.S. accusing the Saudi government of corruption and widespread human rights violations. Al-Khilewi, who was granted asylum in August, announced that he would establish an opposition group with an emphasis on human rights advocacy. Ahmed al-Zaharni, a vice consul in Houston, Texas, sought political asylum in the United Kingdom, accusing Saudi officials of plans to harm him following the publication of his book on Saudi foreign policy.

By the end of the summer, the Reform Movement, the main Shi'a opposition group, had suspended all its activities outside Saudi Arabia, in exchange for promises made by the government to improve conditions for the Shi'a minority. Before they were suspended, the movement's activities had included the publication of a magazine in Arabic and another in English, and the distribution of human rights information by groups affiliated with the movement. During the year, the Holy Shrines Center, run by a smaller Shi'a opposition group continued to issue occasional reports on violations of the rights of the Shi'a minority.

No human rights organizations were permitted to visit Saudi Arabia in 1994. As in the past, requests for information and inquiries made by Human Rights Watch/Middle East during the year on specific incidents of human rights violations went unanswered. By mid-November, there had been no response to our request to discuss sending a Human Rights Watch/Middle East mission to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Policy

By virtue of an important strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia spanning over fifty years, the United States is uniquely well-placed to help curb human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Although the Clinton election campaign had cited Saudi Arabia as a target for human rights attention, the Clinton administration largely failed to criticize publicly Saudi violations, and occasionally praised the Kingdom's rulers. Apparently subordinating human rights principles to strategic and commercial interests, the increased level of military and commercial activity during the year was not accompanied by public candor in assessing the human rights record of Saudi Arabia. During the year, when senior administration officials, including President Clinton and the secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce and Treasury, as well as Mack McLarty, White House Counselor and former chief of staff, visited Saudi Arabia, they refrained from voicing any concern over human rights violations. Their reticence may have reflected the mistaken belief that promotion of human rights and participatory democracy in the Kingdom would have a deleterious effect on other important interests.

U.S. commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia is a key goal of U.S. foreign policy that the Clinton administration emphasized from the beginning of its term and repeated several times during 1994. This commitment was demonstrated through a permanent U.S. military presence offshore near Saudi Arabia, and the large number of U.S. military advisers with the Saudi military, in addition to pre-positioning of large stocks of weapons for use against threats to Saudi Arabia. When in October Iraq again threatened Kuwait, the U.S.-Saudi military alliance quickly responded by dispatching U.S. troops to the region using Saudi military facilities and pre-positioned armament.

The bilateral military arrangements included the sale of sophisticated weapons, scheduled for delivery throughout the remainder of the decade, with Saudi Arabia accounting for 30 percent of total U.S. military sales. In addition to military hardware, Saudi Arabia in 1994 awarded two major contracts to U.S. aircraft and telecommunications companies, after intensive lobbying by senior administration officials, including President Clinton, Lloyd Bentsen, Secretary of the Treasury, and Ron Brown, Secretary of Commerce, who traveled to Saudi Arabia for that purpose. A $6 billion contract was awarded to Boeing Company and the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation for civilian jetliners for Saudia, the government-owned carrier. American Telephone & Telegraph won an estimated $4 billion contract to expand the telephone network. According to an October 25 Wall Street Journal article, 80 percent of the funding for the Boeing-McDonnell deal was being arranged on favorable terms by the U.S. Export-Import Bank. U.S. firms in general increased their investments in Saudi Arabia, making the U.S. by far the major foreign investor in the Kingdom, increasing the U.S. share from 25.3 percent in 1993 to 35.6 percent this year, according to an October 27 UPI dispatch.

In testimony before Congress in March, June, and October, Robert H. Pelletreau, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, repeated administration proclamations about the need to promote "more open political systems, and respect for human rights and the rule of law" as one of the administration's priorities. Despite widespread popular dissatisfaction in Saudi Arabia and the fact that the Saudi government has outlawed elections and popular representation for over thirty years, Secretary Pelletreau told Congress in written answer to members' questions submitted in June, "The U.S. believes that the Government of Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of Saudi citizens." The Secretary did not cite any evidence to support his conclusion.

Nevertheless, in 1994, the U.S. government for the first time in recent history publicly expressed some qualified concern over human rights developments in Saudi Arabia, although it refrained from describing them as violations. On September 29, weeks after mass arrests had taken place in Saudi Arabia, Christine Shelly, State Department Spokesperson, answered a reporter's question about the U.S. position on the Saudi government's arrest of 110 opponents, which had been acknowledged by Saudi authorities three days earlier. Ms. Shelly said, "We're aware of the fact that 110 Muslim militants have been arrested. It's a situation that we continue to monitor. Saudi authorities have indicated that these arrests were made on the basis of evidence that they had, that the individuals involved were seeking to disrupt internal security." (The evidence the Saudi official announcement had cited were leaflets and audiocassettes critical of the government, and a book on U.S. policy in the Gulf written by the central figure among those arrested). Ms. Shelly further stated that, "human rights and rule of law issues, of course, are an important part of our ongoing dialogue with the Saudis. We do have – the United States does have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia." When asked whether the arrests fell under "the heading of human rights concerns," Ms. Shelly said it was premature to classify them as such, "I think that the activity in question is something that we made a notation of in our human rights report, and we are also aware of what their particular regulations are regarding actions that they take in response to disruptions that they perceive to their internal security...and I think it's premature at this point to make that kind of a characterization." According to a November 4 New York Times article, administration officials later apologized to the Saudi government for Ms. Shelly's implication that the U.S. was concerned about the arrests.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East

In 1994, despite the Saudi government's failure to approve Human Rights Watch/Middle East's request for an official mission to the Kingdom, the organization continued its close monitoring of human rights conditions and advocacy on behalf of victims of abuse in Saudi Arabia.

Through letters to the government and the media, Human Rights Watch/Middle East protested the harassment of peaceful Islamist dissidents and the U.S. government's silence. It supported the asylum application of a Saudi diplomat who protested his government's abuses and the royal family monopoly of power. (He was granted asylum in the U.S. in August.) Previously, Human Rights Watch/Middle East had played a key role in efforts to persuade the Canadian government to grant asylum to a Saudi feminist. The successful effort resulted in an overhaul of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board's guidelines widening the scope of the definition of women refugees.

In 1994, for the second year in a row, in an effort supported by Human Rights Watch/Middle East, the House Judiciary Committee adopted an amendment to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act making it easier for U.S. citizens to seek legal remedies in the U.S. for human rights abuses committed abroad. The amendment was partly in response to the 1993 Supreme Court decision in Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, in which Human Rights Watch/Middle East had acted as amicus curiae in support of Scott Nelson, who was suing the Saudi government for torture and arbitrary arrest during his employment with a Saudi government agency.

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