Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Head of state and government: King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that failed to respect due process, including a special anti-terrorism court that handed down death sentences. New legislation effectively equated criticism of the government and other peaceful activities with terrorism. The authorities clamped down on online activism and intimidated activists and family members who reported human rights violations. Discrimination against the Shi'a minority remained entrenched; some Shi'a activists were sentenced to death and scores received lengthy prison terms. Torture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted "confessions" and sentenced others to flogging. Women faced discrimination in law and practice, and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence despite a new law criminalizing domestic violence. The authorities detained and summarily expelled thousands of foreign migrants, returning some to countries where they were at risk of serious human rights abuses. The authorities made extensive use of the death penalty and carried out dozens of public executions.


The government adopted increasingly tough measures against its critics and opponents, who ranged from peaceful dissidents to armed Islamist militants, reflected by its introduction and enforcement of sweeping new and severe anti-terrorism legislation. The authorities publicly deterred citizens from contributing funds, recruits or other support to militant Sunni armed groups in Syria and Iraq.

In September, Saudi Arabia joined the US-led military alliance formed to combat the Islamic State armed group and other armed groups in Syria and Iraq.

The UN Human Rights Council completed its Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia in March. The government accepted the majority of the recommendations but rejected substantive calls, such as one urging Saudi Arabia to ratify the ICCPR. The government committed to dismantling or abolishing the male guardianship system and to allowing women greater freedom to travel, study, work and marry, but it had taken no discernible steps to implement these commitments by the end of the year.

Freedoms of expression, association and assembly

The government remained intolerant of dissent and repressed its critics, including bloggers and other online commentators, political and women's rights activists, members of the Shi'a minority, and human rights activists and defenders. The government continued to ban judges from using social media for any purpose.

In May, a court in Jeddah sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and a flogging of 1,000 lashes after convicting him on charges that included "insulting Islam" for establishing the website Saudi Arabian Liberals, which promoted political and social debate, and for criticizing some religious leaders. He was initially charged with apostasy, which carries the death penalty. The court also ordered the closure of the website. His prison term and flogging sentence were confirmed by the Court of Appeal in September.

In October, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh sentenced three lawyers – Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih – to prison terms of up to eight years to be followed by bans on travel abroad after convicting them of "impinging public order" by using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice. The court also banned them indefinitely from using any media outlets including social media.

The government did not permit the existence of political parties, trade unions and independent human rights groups, and it arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned those who set up or participated in unlicensed organizations.

The government continued to deny Amnesty International access to Saudi Arabia and took punitive action against activists and family members of victims who contacted Amnesty International.

All public gatherings, including demonstrations, remained prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those who sought to defy the ban faced arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as "inciting people against the authorities". In October, the government warned that it would arrest anyone who defied the ban by supporting the campaign for women drivers (see below).

Human rights defenders

The authorities targeted the small but vocal community of human rights defenders, using anti-terrorism laws to suppress their peaceful actions to expose and address human rights violations. Those detained or serving sentences included founding members and activists of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), an officially unrecognized group founded in 2009 which campaigns for the release or fair trial of long-term political detainees. At the end of the year, four ACPRA members were serving prison sentences of up to 15 years, three others were detained pending their trial outcomes, and two were detained without trial. The latter were Abdulrahman al-Hamid, arrested after he signed a statement in April calling for the Interior Minister to be put on trial, and Saleh al-Ashwan, held without charge since 2012. Two other ACPRA activists were at liberty awaiting the outcome of their trials. Those convicted were serving sentences imposed on vague, overly broad charges designed to stifle peaceful criticism. Other activists faced trial on similar charges.

In July, the SCC sentenced leading human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair to 15 years in prison, followed by a 15-year ban on travelling abroad, after convicting him on vague, overly broad charges arising from his peaceful and professional human rights activities.

In November, the Criminal Court in al-Khobar in the Eastern Province sentenced human rights defender Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari to two years in prison and a flogging of 200 lashes after convicting him on charges of "stirring public opinion by sitting with the Shi'a" and "violating the rulers' instructions by holding a private gathering and tweeting". He already faced a five-year prison term, followed by a 10-year travel ban, imposed on him by the SCC in June 2013. The SCC also banned him from writing in the press and on social media websites, and from appearing on television or radio. The SCC's appeal chamber confirmed this sentence in June 2014.

Counter-terror and security

A new anti-terrorism law that took effect in February, following approval by the King, extended the authorities' already sweeping powers to combat "acts of terror". The new law failed to define terrorism but provided that words and actions deemed by the authorities to be directly or indirectly "disturbing" to public order, "destabilizing the security of society, or the stability of the state", "revoking the basic law of government", or "harming the reputation of the state or its standing" would be considered terrorist acts. In March, a series of decrees promulgated by the Interior Ministry extended Saudi Arabia's already wide definition of terrorism to include "calling for atheist thought" and "contacting any groups or individuals opposed to the Kingdom", as well as "seeking to disrupt national unity" by calling for protests, and "harming other states and their leaders". In violation of international standards, the new decrees had retroactive effect, exposing those alleged to have committed acts in the past to prosecution on terrorism as well as other charges if they commit any new offence.

In July, the Ministry of Justice reaffirmed the exclusive jurisdiction of the SCC over cases involving alleged offences against state security.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

Security authorities carried out arbitrary arrests and continued to hold detainees without charge or trial for long periods, with scores of people held for more than six months without being referred to a competent court, in breach of the country's Code of Criminal Procedures. Detainees were frequently held incommunicado during interrogation and denied access to lawyers, in violation of international fair trial standards.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other ill-treatment remained common and widespread, according to former detainees, trial defendants and others, and were used with impunity. In a number of cases, courts convicted defendants solely on the basis of pre-trial "confessions" without investigating their claims that these confessions had been extracted under torture, in some cases sentencing the defendants to death.

Some prisoners sentenced on political grounds in previous years were reportedly ill-treated in prison, including the imprisoned ACPRA activists Dr Abdullah al-Hamid and Dr Mohammad al-Qahtani, who went on hunger strike in March to protest against their conditions. In August, Jeddah prison guards reportedly beat imprisoned human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair when forcibly removing him from his cell before transferring him to another prison.

Discrimination – Shi'a minority

Members of the Shi'a minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continued to face entrenched discrimination that limited their access to government services and employment, and impacted them in many other ways. Members of the Shi'a community remained mostly excluded from senior posts. Shi'a leaders and activists faced arrest, imprisonment following unfair trials, and the death penalty.

In May, the SCC sentenced Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr to death after convicting him on charges that included demonstrating against the government, possession of weapons and attacking the security forces. He denied the charges and told the court that he had been tortured and forced to confess in pre-trial detention. The court convicted him without investigating his torture allegations, and sentenced him to death although he was aged 17 at the time of the alleged offences. In October, his uncle, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shi'a cleric from Qatif and vocal critic of the government's treatment of the Shi'a minority, was sentenced to death by the SCC. Security forces arrested Sheikh al-Nimr in July 2012 in disputed circumstances in which he was shot and paralyzed in one leg. In August, the SCC sentenced another prominent Shi'a cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq al-'Amr, to eight years in prison, to be followed by a 10-year ban on overseas travel and a ban on delivering religious sermons and public speeches.

In September, the SCC imposed a fine and a 14-year prison sentence followed by a 15-year foreign travel ban on Shi'a rights activist Fadhel al-Manasif after convicting him on charges that included "breaking allegiance with the ruler" and maintaining "contact with foreign news organizations". The sentence was upheld by the SCC's appeal division in December.

The SCC sentenced other Shi'a activists for their alleged participation in the protests of 2011 and 2012. At least five received death sentences; others received long prison terms.

Women's rights

Women and girls remained subject to discrimination in law and practice. Women had subordinate status to men under the law, particularly in relation to family matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, and they were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. Domestic violence reportedly remained endemic, despite a government awareness-raising campaign launched in 2013. A 2013 law criminalizing domestic violence was not implemented in practice due to a lack of competent authorities to enforce it.

Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the prohibition on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, who warned that women drivers would face arrest. Some were arrested but released after a short period. In early December, Loujain al-Hathloul and Mayssa al-Amoudi, two supporters of the campaign, were arrested at the border with the United Arab Emirates for driving their cars. The authorities later brought terrorism-related charges against both women, who remained in detention at the end of the year.

Women's rights activist Souad al-Shammari was detained in October after Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution officials in Jeddah summoned her for questioning. She was held without charge at Briman prison in Jeddah at the end of the year.

Women's rights activists Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni, whose 10-month prison sentences and two-year foreign travel bans were confirmed by an appeal court in 2013, remained at liberty. The authorities did not explain their failure to summon them to prison.

In April, two daughters of the King accused him of having held them and their two sisters captive within a royal compound for 13 years, and of denying them adequate food.

Migrant workers' rights

After granting foreign workers several months to regularize their status, the government launched a crackdown on irregular foreign migrants in November 2013, arresting, detaining and deporting hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. In March, the Interior Minister stated that the authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants in the preceding five months and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were summarily returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into severely overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.

Cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment

The courts continued to impose sentences of flogging as punishment for many offences. Blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to a flogging of 1,000 lashes in addition to a prison sentence. Human rights defender Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari was sentenced to 200 lashes as well as a prison term.

In September, the authorities released Ruth Cosrojas, a Filipino domestic worker sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment and 300 lashes after an unfair trial in October 2013 where she was convicted of organizing the sale of sex (quwada). She had received 150 lashes by the time of her release.

Death penalty

Courts continued to impose death sentences for a range of crimes, including some that did not involve violence, such as "sorcery", adultery and drug offences, frequently after unfair trials. Some defendants, including foreign nationals facing murder charges, alleged that they had been tortured or otherwise coerced or misled into making false confessions in pre-trial detention.

The authorities carried out dozens of executions, many by public beheading. Those executed included both Saudi nationals and foreign migrants.

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