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Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 December 2000
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - Saudi Arabia , 1 December 2000, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
Comments This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.
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

"It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles," Saudi Arabia's deputy premier and effective head of state Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz told the U.N. Third Millenium summit in New York on September 6. He warned of "the ramifications of unbridled globalization and its use as an umbrella to violate the sovereignty of states and interfere with their internal affairs under a variety of pretexts, especially from the angle of human rights." The kingdom's fourteen million citizens and six to seven million foreign residents thus continued to be denied a range of basic rights guranteed under international law.

Freedom of expression and association were nonexistent rights, political parties and independent local media were not permitted, and even peaceful anti-government activities remained virtually unthinkable. Infringements on privacy, institutionalized gender discrimination, harsh restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, and the use of capital and corporal punishment were also major features of the kingdom's human rights record.

There were some encouraging developments, however, such as greater official sensitivity to international criticism of the country's human rights practices, recognition of international standards with respect to women's rights, and public pledges to establish human rights monitoring bodies. On September 7, Saudi Arabia became a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), although on August 21 the Council of Ministers, in announcing the government's intention to sign the treaty, said that it would not comply with "any clause in the agreement that contradicts Islamic sharia [law]."

Freedom of expression remained strictly circumscribed and there was no independent press. The eighth Arabic-language daily newspaper in the kingdom, al-Watan, was launched in September, joining other Saudi newspapers and media bankrolled by the royal family, including the influential pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. The Royal Decree for Printed Material and Publications, promulgated in 1982, contained a list of prohibited topics covering any material that was printed, published, or circulated in the kingdom. Violations of the law were criminal offenses, punishable with up to one year of imprisonment and/or fines.

The number of independent licensed Internet service providers (ISPs) in the kingdom increased to about thirty, with some 100,000 subscribers. Capacity reportedly could not meet demand, and there was evidence that the kingdom continued its efforts to monitor and restrict Web access in the country. "The Saudi government has a right to protect its society," Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC) president Abdel Rahman al-Yami said. "We would like to be not open, but selective in what content comes in....[T]he fast growth in the customer base has created challenges for the network." The STC was responsible for the backbone network inside the country while the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) controlled content as the sole gateway to the Internet. In August, KACST blocked the Yahoo "Clubs" site, which contained some 250 Saudi clubs with over 60,000 members. "The Clubs site was blocked because most of the material was against the kingdom's religious, social and political values," said KACST official Khalil al-Jadaan. In April, the government closed an Internet cafe in Mecca that was popular with university students. The action came as a result of a court complaint that the women-only cafe was being used for "immoral purposes," the BBC reported, citing Arab News. "What was uncovered was against both our religion and our traditions," charged Brigadier Yousef Matter of the civil police, adding that the court had empowered him to shut down other cybercafes in Mecca.

Capital punishment was applied for crimes including murder, rape, armed robbery, drug smuggling, sodomy, and sorcery. In most cases, the condemned were decapitated in public squares after being blindfolded, handcuffed, shackled at the ankles, and tranquilized. By late September 2000, at least 104 Saudis and foreigners had been beheaded, exceeding in nine months the total of 103 that Amnesty International recorded in 1999. Two of the foreigners beheaded in 2000 were women: a Pakistani in July for heroin smuggling, and an Indonesian in June for murder.

Saudi courts continued to impose corporal punishment, including amputations of hands and feet for robbery, and floggings for lesser crimes such as "sexual deviance" and drunkenness. The number of lashes was not clearly prescribed by law and varied according to the discretion of judges, and ranged from dozens of lashes to several thousand, usually applied over a period of weeks or months. A court in Qunfuda sentenced nine Saudi alleged transvestites in April. Five drew prison terms of six years and 2,600 lashes, and the other four were sentenced to five years and 2,400 lashes. The floggings reportedly were to be carried out in fifty equal sessions, with a fifteen-day hiatus between each punishment. In August, the daily Okaz reported that a court had ordered the surgical removal of the left eye of an Egyptian, Abd al-Muti Abdel Rahman Muhamed, after he was convicted of throwing acid in the face of another Egyptian, injuring and disfiguring his left eye. The operation was performed in a hospital in Medina. In addition to this punishment, Abdel Rahman was reportedly fined U.S. $68,800 and sentenced to an undisclosed prison term.

The inherent cruelty of such sentences was heightened by due process concerns about the fairness of legal and administrative procedures. Under the 1983 Principles of Arrest, Temporary Confinement, and Preventative Regulations, detainees had no right to judicial review, no right to legal counsel, and could be held in prolonged detention pending a decision by the regional governor or the minister of interior. Suspects had no right to examine witnesses, or to call witnesses of their own, and uncorroborated confessions could constitute the basis for conviction and sentencing.

Hani `Abd al-Rahim Hussain al-Sayegh, a Saudi citizen deported from the United States on October 11, 1999, after the U.S. Attorney General's Office stated that it lacked sufficient evidence to charge him in connection with the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing in Dhahran that killed nineteen American troops, was held in virtual incommunicado detention without charges and without access to legal counsel for at least three months after his arrival in the kingdom. The U.S. did not make public guarantees it claimed to have sought and received from Saudi Arabia prior to his deportation that he would not be maltreated and would receive a fair trial.

The government heavily restricted religious freedom and actively discouraged religious practices other than the Wahhabi interpretation of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam. Officially, non-Muslims were free to worship privately but in October 1999 and January 2000, according to the U.S. State Department, two Filipino Christian services were raided by the mutawwa'in, the state-financed religious police known as the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. Thirteen people were arrested the first time and another sixteen persons in January; all were deported. Saudi officials reportedly said that the services had too many participants to be considered private.

The mutawwa'in also policed public display of religious icons and public worship or practice of religions other than Wahhabi Islam, and had the authority to detain Muslims and non-Muslims for up to twenty-four hours for offenses such as indecent dress and comportment. Official intolerance extended to alternative interpretations of Islam, and members of Saudi religious minorities continued to be harassed or detained for the peaceful practice of their faith. Shia Muslims, who constitute about eight percent of the Saudi population, faced discrimination in employment as well as limitations on religious practices. Shia jurisprudence books were banned, the traditional annual Shia mourning procession of Ashura was discouraged, and operating independent Islamic religious establishments remained illegal. At least seven Shi'a religious leaders-Abd al-Latif Muhammad Ali, Habib al-Hamid, Abd al-Latif al-Samin, Abdallah Ramadan, Sa'id al-Bahaar, Muhammad Abd al-Khidair, and Habib Hamdah Sayid Hashim al-Sadah-reportedly remained in prison for violating these restrictions.

Several incidents during the year punctured the kingdom's stability. These included violent clashes between Ismaili Shiites and security forces in the southwest province of Najran in April; the August 9 shooting by a Saudi university student at a housing complex for foreign defense workers in Khamis Mushayt near the King Khalid air base in southwest Asir province in which authorities said one Saudi Royal Air Force police officer was killed and another two seriously injured; a two-day uprising at al-Jawf prison in the north, also in August; and the hijacking of a Saudi Arabian Airlines plane flying from Jeddah to London on October 14 by two armed Saudis whom the government identified as first lieutenants in the security forces.

There were conflicting accounts about the unrest in the southwest city of Najran where Ismaili Shiites confronted security forces and the provincial governor in April. The unrest was variously attributed to public Shi'a observance of Ashura for the first time in many years, the closure of an Ismaili mosque, the arrest of an Ismaili cleric, and tensions along Saudi's border with Yemen, where Ismailis have strong links. Between April 14 and 16, according to the London-based Committee to Protect Legitimate Rights in the Arabian Peninsula, three Isma'ili religious scholars, Haythim al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Shakhs of al-Ahsa, Abdullah al-Sayyid Hussain al-Nahwi of al-Mabraz, and Jud Juwwad al-Nahwi of al-Mabraz, were arrested for their involvement with the outlawed Islamic Action Movement. The same source named eleven religious scholars forbidden from preaching and religious activities, and another twelve scholars who remained imprisoned for such activities, some for as long as five years. Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Khayat, a Shi'a Isma'ili cleric and according to Saudi authorities an illegal Yemeni immigrant, was arrested on April 23 for "practicing sorcery" while teaching in al-Mansura mosque in Najran. No details were available on theprecise nature of his alleged offense, or whether his activities were connected with Isma'ili religious practices deemed idolatrous by Wahhabi doctrine. An associate of al-Khayat reportedly shot and injured a policeman who was searching the cleric's home.

By some accounts, Saudi religious police raided an Isma'ili mosque, closed it down, and confiscated its books. Protesters then assembled in front of the home of Najran's provincial governor, Prince Masha'al bin Saud bin Abd al-Aziz. According to Agence France-Presse, the Interior Ministry deployed forces overnight amidst warnings that the protesters were liable to be "arrested, questioned, and tried in keeping with Islamic law." According to the Saudi Press Agency, citing the Interior Ministry, security forces raided not a mosque but the home of an "illegal resident" who was practicing "sorcery." During the search and after the sorcerer was arrested, the SPA said, one member of the security forces was shot and injured. At a demonstration at the governor's headquarters calling for the release of the alleged sorcerer, protesters fired guns and burned vehicles, killing one member of the security forces and injuring others. There was no independent confirmation of the numbers killed, injured and arrested in the days that followed, and official government statements clearly sought to downplay the incident.

On August 11, some 400 inmates at the central prison in al-Jawf went on a two-day rampage. According to an unnamed Saudi security official cited in press reports, the prisoners attacked a guard, burned bedding in their cells, and then rioted, causing extensive damage. Calm was reportedly restored the next day, after police and special security forces were airlifted to the area to assist the guards. The inmates reportedly were frustrated at the lack of response to repeated complaints about prison conditions and sought a meeting with the provincial governor. According to the Saudi official, demands included the provision of newspapers, doors on bathrooms, and improved food, sanitation and recreation.

Saudi women continued to face severe discrimination in all aspects of their lives, including the family, education, employment, and the justice system. Religious police enforced a modesty code of dress and institutions from schools to ministries were gender-segregated. This year a princess and distant cousin of the king was appointed assistant under secretary at the Ministry of Education – the highest position ever held by a Saudi woman – in charge of girls' education. Saudi businesswomen continued to be active through their own associations, including the Businesswomen's Forum in the Eastern Province. According to one report, of the 76,000 members of the Jeddah, Riyadh and Eastern Province chambers of commerce, some 5,500 were women.

Interior Minister Prince Nayif bin Abdelaziz said in August that the kingdom's high population growth rate and the large number of job-seeking graduates presented "an economic, social, security and cultural problem." Unemployment among Saudi citizens was an estimated 14 percent, and 20 percent among workers aged twenty to twenty-nine years old, according to the chief economist at the Saudi American Bank in Riyadh. The government therefore continued to take steps to reduce its reliance on foreign workers, a process described as "Saudiization," which Prince Nayif declared a "top priority."

The large population of foreign workers included some 1.2 million Egyptians and 1.2 million Indians, according to the U.S. State Department. Undocumented workers included those who remained after entering the country to perform the haj or umra, and those who stayed after the expiry of their work visas. Migrants have long been subjected to restrictions such as the surrender of passports to Saudi sponsors, limitations on freedom of movement, prohibitions on trade union organizing, and lack of access to legal representation in cases of arrest. Overstayers and violators of the iqama (residency permit system) were given a July 2 deadline to obtain the proper authorizations or leave the country, which authorities later extended to August 29, after which date all penalties were to be "firmly implemented," the Interior Ministry said. Prince Nayif said that iqama violators included those who left or fled their Saudi sponsors or who were carrying out business activities on their own. Anyone without a residence permit after the deadline faced fines of over U.S. $25,000, prison sentences of six months, and deportation. Special police squads searched work places and homes for violators, including both foreign workers and their Saudi employers. Thousands of foreigners left or were expelled. For example, the Nigerian press reported on July 20 that 1,000 Nigerians had already been rounded up and deported, and Pakistani media said on September 27 that 2,441 Pakistani workers had been deported, in addition to thousands of undocumented workers who left the country voluntarily. In September, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs reportedly wrote to private firms with over twenty employees, instructing them to increase by 25 percent the number of Saudis on their payrolls.

Saudi Arabia continued to provide refuge and financial support to Idi Amin, the exiled Ugandan leader whose regime was responsible for a reign of terror that left an estimated 300,00 dead in the 1970s. After fleeing Uganda in 1979, Amin arrived in the kingdom at the invitation of the late King Faisal and reportedly has since been protected by government-paid Saudi guards. A journalist with Uganda's New Vision newspaper interviewed Amin in Jeddah in 1999 and reported that he had moved from his home in the city center "to a more exclusive area...mainly occupied by powerful oil sheikhs."

Defending Human Rights

Saudi restrictions on access to the country, coupled with the lack of freedom of association and expression, made it extremely difficult to obtain detailed information about human rights conditions, and there were no independent human rights organizations operating from inside the country either overtly or clandestinely. Surveillance of telephone, the Internet, and postal communications made it risky for persons inside the kingdom to provide information. Saudis abroad were reluctant to speak of sensitive matters for fear of repercussion on family members or future employment prospects. As of October 2000, there were no indications that the new rights bodies announced by the government in April had been set up or begun operation. It was also unclear if the cabinet's August decision to ratify CEDAW, albeit with reservations, would enable independent women's rights groups to organize and function freely inside the kingdom.

Amnesty International launched a worldwide campaign focused on Saudi Arabia – "End Secrecy, End Suffering" – and published reports about the kingdom in March, May, and October. The campaign provoked repeated public responses from Saudi government officials that ranged from welcoming invitations to intense criticism. On March 27, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a detailed statement saying that the kingdom had a "keen interest and commitment to the cause of human rights," there were no political prisoners, and the criminal justice system was "properly administered." Harsh words followed from senior Saudi officials. For example, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz charged on April 11 at a joint press conference with British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon that "all that has been said against Saudi Arabia is motivated by hate." He added: "Those who have the slightest doubt over human rights in Saudi Arabia should come to the kingdom to see for themselves. We have six million non-Saudis who work in all fields and enjoy their rights." Saudi newspapers on April 15 quoted Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who dismissed as "merely nonsense" the allegations of human rights abuses in the kingdom. The interior minister was also quoted the same day as saying: "We welcome anyone to see for himself the facts in the kingdom as it has nothing to conceal."

But Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal appeared to exclude Amnesty International from the interior minister's invitation to visit the kingdom. In an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, reported by Agence France-Presse on April 16, he said: "If Amnesty International was seeking the truth and if it informed itself honesty of the truth, we would consider a visit." He continued: "But so long as it continues to use erroneous information as its basis without taking into account our responses," the visit would have "no sense." As of this writing, neither AmnestyInternational nor Human Rights Watch have received positive responses to requests for access to the kingdom.

After the release of Amnesty International's second report, which concerned the justice system, the criticism continued. For example, Minister Abdullah al-Sheik said on May 9 that critics of the kingdom's rights record "have misled many people with lies and fallacies which they spread through the media." And on May 20 the daily al-Riyadh quoted Prince Turki bin Muhamed, deputy foreign minister for political affairs, charging: "The target of Amnesty's campaign against Saudi Arabia is Islam."

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

Saudi Arabia for the first time was elected as one of the fifty-three members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for the 2001-2003 term. On April 6, Prince Turki bin Muhammad Saud al-Kabir told the commission that "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are jointly seeking to promote the universality of human rights." The prince stated that the kingdom prohibited any form of torture, and that his government did "not prohibit exercise of freedom of expression and assembly provided that this is neither prejudicial to public order nor detrimental to public morals," and that all laws applied "to both sexes without distinction or exception."

Prince Turki also told the commission that the government would set up "a national governmental body, reporting directly to the Prime Minister and headed by a high-level official, vested with authority to look into all human rights issues." He added that "an independent non-governmental national body" would also be established " to help to publicize and protect human rights, to affirm the need for compliance with the regulations pertaining thereto and to advocate the punishment of offenders." He stated that "human rights sections" would be created in various government agencies, including the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labor, "to emphasize the vital need for compliance with human rights regulations and principles," and that new regulations would be adopted to govern the legal profession and legal counseling.

The prince extended an invitation to the U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to study the Saudi court system. In July, the Consultative Council, an advisory body, deliberated over a new draft law for regulation of legal procedures.

On September 7 Crown Prince Abdallah signed at the U.N. the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), although it was too early to assess the practical effect on women's rights in the kingdom.

On October 25, Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced the appointment of Thoraya Ahmed Obeid, a Saudi woman who has served in U.N. posts since 1975, as executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. "Today, all the Saudi women are recognizing that you broke the ceiling one more time for Saudi women, and we thank you for that," she told Annan. She also was quoted as saying: "Once you talk about human rights, you talk about women, you talk about freedom. It is a process the country is going through," adding that she hoped it would "impact on my sisters in Saudi Arabia and make a difference in our lives."

European Union

The European Commission continued to negotiate with the Gulf Cooperation Council (of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member) for a free trade agreement. The Joint Communique of the E.U.-GCC Ministerial Meeting issued November 2, 1999, said that "The GCC Ministers, while noting the diversity of systems of values, which should be taken fully into consideration, joined the E.U. in reiterating their continuing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights." European countries, along with the U.S. and Japan, have called for Saudi admission to the World Trade Organization.

According to the Saudi government, Western-based multinational oil companies were committed to investing some U.S. $100 billion in the kingdom's natural gas and petrochemical sectors over the next two decades. In July, it was revealed that twelve corporations had been shortlisted to prepare detailed project proposals, including four based in Europe: Royal Dutch/Shell Group, BP Amoco, ENI, and Total Fina Elf.

United Kingdom

Noting that in 1999 Saudi Arabia was the nineteenth largest export market in the world, the British government reported that the kingdom was its largest market in the Middle East, with exports of £1.5 billion. The United Kingdom maintained a hefty arms trade with Saudi Arabia, although exports declined in 1999 to £131 million sterling from £803 million in 1998.

Foreign office minister of state Peter Hain noted in a speech on June 20 at the Investing in Saudi Arabia conference in London that Britain was the second largest investor in Saudi Arabia with investments totalling U.S. $3.5 billion. He noted that some 30,000 Britons resided in the country, and there were more than ninety joint ventures between British and Saudi companies. He reported that top British corporations in Saudi included GlaxoWellcome, Shell, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, Tate & Lyle, and Unilever.

Hain added: "Saudi Arabia is important. We all know why. It remains the economic powerhouse of the region. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that can still dictate business on its own terms, sometimes against all the odds of the economics textbooks. Who else could have the international banks lending so readily? Who else could have the international oil companies queuing-up to invest billions of dollars?"

United States

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen was asked at an April 9 joint press briefing in Jeddah with his Saudi counterpart Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to discuss areas of disagreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia. "That's a very easy answer," he replied. "There are no points of disagreement between his Royal Highness and myself or between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States."

Saudi Arabia was the largest market in the region for American products, and the U.S. once again was Saudi Arabia's number one trading partner, with military and civilian exports of U.S. $7.9 billion in 1999, according to an April 2000 report of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. The kingdom was among the world's top ten military spenders, the State Department said in its August 2000 report, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1998, and the number one recipient of U.S. arms exports in the period 1995-1997, with $13.7 billion in sales.

About 4,000 U.S. troops were stationed at Prince Sultan air base. Ministerof Defense Prince Sultan said on April 9 that rumors of a reduction of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia were "not correct." He visited Washington, D.C., on November 1-4, 1999 at the invitation of Secretary of Defense Cohen, and had meetings with President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright, Secretary Cohen and other senior officials. The State Department issued a joint statement on November 5, saying that topics of discussion included "the close cooperation of the two governments, particularly military and economic cooperation," and that the two countries "agreed that continuing high-level military contact and joint military training enhance[d] preparedness help[ed] sustain security and peace in the Middle East and throughout the world." On July 20, the Defense Department announced a proposed $475 million military sale to Saudi Arabia for 500 AIM-120C Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missiles and other logistical and program support.

At a press conference in Riyadh on February 26, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson termed Saudi Arabia "a good friend and strong ally" of the U.S., and noted that ties were cemented by "a strong trade relationship, a significant investment relationship, a valued strategic partnership and a long-standing energy relationship." He also said that the U.S. welcomed the kingdom's decision to "revise the foreign capital investment law to make it more attractive for foreign investors to do business in Saudi Arabia," and that U.S. companies were "very pleased with the prospect of participation in the gas upstream sector and other potential foreign investment opportunities."

Saudi officials stressed the importance of U.S. support for the kingdom's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). At a banquet on September 5 in New York hosted by the Saudi-American Business Council, Crown Prince Abdullah said: "We expect that official U.S. agencies and the U.S. business community will support our efforts to complete the procedures to win WTO membership." The U.S. embassy in Riyadh noted in an April report that accession to the WTO was "the keystone of Saudi Arabia's economic reform program." It was reported in September that Crown Prince Abdullah would be meeting in New York with representatives of the eight U.S.-based oil companies selected in August to further pursue energy development projects in Saudi Arabia: Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil, Marathon, Phillips, Texaco, Enron, and Occidental.

The State Department once again issued a critical written assessment of Saudi Arabia's human rights practices in its annual country report, issued in February, but Clinton administration officials once again did not raise rights issues publicly. In a scathing indictment of the kingdom's practices, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote to Secretary of State Albright recommending that Saudi Arabia be added to the list of "countries of particular concern," pursuant to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, for "particularly severe violations of religious freedom." The commission stated that "the government brazenly denies religious freedom and vigorously enforces its prohibition against all forms of public religious expression other than that of Wahabi Muslims. Numerous Christians and Shi'a Muslims continue to be detained, imprisoned and deported."

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