Last Updated: Friday, 28 August 2015, 14:50 GMT

Amnesty International Report 2008 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Amnesty International
Publication Date 28 May 2008
Cite as Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2008 - Saudi Arabia, 28 May 2008, available at: [accessed 31 August 2015]
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.


Head of state and government: King Abdullah Bin 'Abdul 'Aziz Al-Saud
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 25.8 million
Life expectancy: 72.2 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 25/17 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 82.9 per cent

The human rights situation remained dire although legal reforms were announced and there was continuing public debate about women's rights. Hundreds of people suspected of terrorism were arrested and detained in virtual secrecy, and thousands of people arrested in previous years remained in prison. Those arrested included prisoners of conscience, among them peaceful advocates of political reform. Women continued to suffer severe discrimination in law and practice. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were common and prisoners were sentenced to flogging and amputation. At least 158 people were executed, including a child offender.


There were sporadic acts of violence by security forces and armed men apparently opposed to the government. The violence resulted in the death or injury of civilians, suspected political opponents and, in rare cases, members of security forces, but few details were available.

In February, an attack by an armed group killed four French nationals who were with a group of tourists in the Western Desert. In April, the government announced that the main suspect had been killed when security forces stormed his home in the holy city of Madina.

Legal developments

In October, the government introduced two laws to restructure the courts and amend the rules governing the judicial profession, and allocated US$1.8 billion to implement the changes. It remained to be seen how this positive move would impact on the three key problems: the secrecy and lack of transparency of the criminal justice system; the lack of adherence to international fair trial standards, such as the rights to legal representation and to appeal; and the lack of independence of the judiciary. These deficiencies remained clearly evident throughout the year and contributed to human rights violations. For example, the judiciary remained silent or was complicit in violations committed in the context of countering terrorism, and it continued to apply discriminatory legislation and issue discriminatory judgments in cases involving women.


Hundreds of suspected supporters of religious opposition groups, officially termed "misguided groups", were detained and thousands arrested in previous years continued to be held without trial and denied basic prisoners' rights.

Those detained during 2007 included terrorism suspects forcibly returned by the authorities of other states, including the USA and Yemen. However, most arrests were made in Saudi Arabia. In some cases, armed security forces killed alleged militants in unclear circumstances during alleged attempts to arrest them. The authorities said that 172 people suspected of planning violent attacks were arrested in April and a further 208 in November in different parts of the country, but did not disclose further details and it was unclear precisely how many suspects were arrested and where they were being held. It was also unclear how many suspects detained in previous years remained in prison, although they were believed to number several thousand. In July, the Interior Ministry said it had detained 9,000 security suspects between 2003 and 2007, of whom 3,106 remained in detention. Most were reportedly subject to a "reform" programme conducted by religious and psychological experts. In November, the government announced the release of 1,500 detainees who had apparently completed the programme.

  • In May, detainees were shown on television confessing to membership of "misguided groups" and describing plans to bomb oil installations and other targets. The government said it would try them on the basis of their confessions. They included Nimr Sahaj al-Baqmi and Abdullah al-Migrin, whose confessions were reportedly ratified by judges. It was unclear whether the two detainees had been allowed access to lawyers, despite the likelihood that they would be charged with offences punishable by death. The fate of all the detainees remained shrouded in secrecy.

'War on terror'

One Saudi Arabian national, Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, died in US custody in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At least 77 others were released by the US authorities and returned to Saudi Arabia, where they were immediately arrested but allowed family visits. Some were subsequently released; others remained in detention apparently undergoing the government's "reform" programme for security detainees.

Prisoners of conscience

Over 100 people arrested on account of their religious affiliation or sexual orientation were or appeared to be prisoners of conscience. They included foreign workers belonging to al-Ahmadiyya, who consider it a sect of Islam, members of the Shi'a community, Sunni reformists and peaceful dissidents. They also included women who staged protests in July outside al-Mabahith al-'Amma (General Intelligence Department) prison in Buraida, north of Riyadh. The women were calling for the trial or release of male relatives who had been detained for years without trial and without access to lawyers or the courts to challenge the legality of the detentions. Most of these detainees were released after short periods, but those who were foreign nationals, such as the Ahmadis, were dismissed from their jobs and deported without being allowed to challenge the legality of the action taken against them.

However, at least 12 prisoners of conscience were still held without trial or access to lawyers at the end of the year. They included Dr Abdul Rahman al-Shumayri and nine others, all university professors, writers or lawyers, who had been arrested in February after they issued a petition calling for political reform. They were held at al-Mabahith al-'Amma prison in Jeddah. They were held incommunicado for nearly six months before being allowed family visits. At least two were reportedly held in solitary confinement.

In an unusual move, prisoner of conscience Dr Abdullah al-Hamid was released on bail after being detained briefly in connection with the women's protest and then tried before an ordinary criminal court in a partly public hearing. He and his brother, who was tried with him on charges arising from the women's protest, were convicted and sentenced to six and four months' imprisonment respectively and required to give an undertaking not to incite further protests. They lodged an appeal but the hearing was not concluded by the end of the year.

Hundreds of former prisoners of conscience, human rights activists, and advocates of peaceful political change remained banned from travel abroad. They included Matrouk al-Falih, a university professor, and one of the reformists imprisoned from March 2004 to August 2005 who was told by the Interior Ministry that he would not be allowed to travel abroad until March 2009. Others were said to have had their bans renewed after they expired.

Discrimination and violence against women

Two cases highlighted the severe nature and extent of legal and other discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia and provoked debate within the country and internationally.

  • The brother of a woman known as Fatima, a mother of two, invoked his legal authority as her male guardian to have a court rule that she be divorced from her husband against her and her husband's will. The brother contended that the husband's tribe was of lower status and that he had failed to disclose this when seeking permission to marry Fatima. Despite the couple's opposition, the court ruled them divorced on the basis of the tribal rule of parity of status between families and tribes as a condition of the validity of their marriage. Fearing that she could be at risk from her relatives, Fatima chose to live in prison rather than go to her brother's home and was subsequently moved to a woman's shelter with her two children. She was unable to meet her former husband as this would mean committing a khilwa offence (a meeting between a male and female who are not members of the same immediate family), which could put them both at risk of prosecution and punishment by flogging and imprisonment.
  • A 20-year-old woman, known as the "al-Qatif girl" to protect her identity, was gang-raped by seven men in 2006 in al-Qatif city. When the case came to court, she and a male companion who had been with her before the rape were each sentenced to 90 lashes for committing a khilwa offence. The rapists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to five years in addition to flogging. All the sentences were then increased on appeal. The rape victim and her male companion were sentenced to six-month prison terms and 200 lashes, while the rapists' sentences were increased to prison terms ranging from two to nine years in addition to flogging. The rape victim's lawyer declared publicly that his client, as the victim of the crime, should not have been punished. In response, the Justice Ministry stated that by committing khilwa the young woman was partly responsible for her own rape and began disciplinary action against the lawyer, accusing him of breaching the law and disclosing the case to the media. In December, the King pardoned the rape victim and the case against her and the male companion was reportedly withdrawn. The disciplinary action against her lawyer was also stopped and he was allowed to resume his work.

In September, women's rights activists petitioned the King to allow women to drive vehicles, as permitted in all other countries. There were also calls for Saudi Arabian women to be allowed to compete in international sporting events along with their male counterparts.

Discrimination fuelled violence against women, with foreign domestic workers particularly at risk of abuses such as beatings, rape and even murder, and non-payment of wages. There was concern that discriminatory laws relating to marriage caused women to be trapped in violent and abusive relationships from which they had no legal recourse.

The government submitted its first report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and was scheduled to appear before the committee in January 2008.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other ill-treatment were widespread and generally committed with impunity. Security forces were alleged to use various methods, including beatings with sticks, punching, suspending detainees by their wrists, sleep deprivation and insults. A video clip released in April showed images of prisoners being tortured in al-Hair Prison, Riyadh. The government said it would investigate the incident and the prison authorities later said that one soldier had been disciplined for the torture and suspended for a month and another had been suspended for 20 days for failing to intervene and stop the assaults on prisoners. It was not known whether any independent investigation was carried out or whether the perpetrators had been brought to justice.

At least six cases alleging torture and deaths in custody were brought against the religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), in various courts, but in all of those completed the accused CPVPV officials were exonerated. There was, however, increased media coverage of these cases.

Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments

Judicial corporal punishments were routinely ordered by courts. Flogging sentences were frequently handed down as a main or additional punishment for most criminal offences and carried out almost daily. The highest number of lashes imposed in cases recorded by Amnesty International was 7,000 – against two men convicted of sodomy in October by a court in al-Baha. Children were among those sentenced to floggings.

At least three people had their right hand amputated at the wrist after being convicted of theft.

Death penalty

At least 158 people, 82 Saudi Arabians and 76 foreign nationals, were executed. They included three women and at least one child offender, Dhahian Rakan al-Sibai', who was 15 at the time of the alleged murder for which he was condemned. He was executed in July in Taif. Those executed were convicted of murder, rape, drug offences, witchcraft, apostasy and other charges, but virtually no information was available about their trials or any appeal, or whether the defendants had received legal representation. Most of the executions were carried out in public.

Several hundred people were believed to remain on death row. Among them were child offenders, including Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, who was sentenced to death for a murder in 2005 when she was 17.

Amnesty International visit

  • Amnesty International again asked to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss human rights, but the government had still not agreed dates for such a visit by the end of 2007.
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