Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

During 1993, in some respects, the dismal human rights record of the Kingdom took a turn for the worse. Torture, ill-treatment and incommunicado detention without trial remained the norm during the year, especially for those accused of security and political offenses. Executions imposed after summary trials increased to more than double the rate of the previous year. The ban on free speech, assembly and association was strictly enforced; violators were jailed, deported, banned from travel or dismissed from their government positions. Fifteen university professors were jailed, and about sixty others banned from travel for the expression of views critical of the government. Formally sanctioned severe restrictions on the employment and movement of women remained in place. In a positive development, most political prisoners from the Shi'a minority were released in July. But discrimination against and harassment of Christians and non-Sunni Muslims continued unabated.

Senior government officials, meanwhile, continued to deny that human rights abuses occurred. Prince Nayef, Minister of Interior and the top security official in the country, said in May that Saudi Arabia "respects human rights much more than any other state or any other society in the world." The year was marked by a campaign in government-controlled media against human rights, which were dismissed as products of anti-Islamic Western bias and "Zionist intrigue."

The most significant development in 1993 was the Saudi government's swift crackdown on peaceful dissent by Islamist groups. The crackdown included formally banning the Committee to Defend Legitimate Rights (CDLR), established on May 3 by six prominent Islamist jurists and university professors. On May 12, the government-appointed Council of Senior Scholars, the highest religious body in the country, denounced the formation of the group as a violation of Islamic law. On May 13, King Fahd summarily dismissed the CDLR's founders from their government jobs. Two founders who were lawyers in private practice had their law offices closed down by royal order. The CDLR spokesman Dr. Muhammed al-Mas'ari, a physics professor at King Saud University, was arrested on May 15, after he defied an order not to talk to the foreign press about the committee. Fourteen other professors from King Saud and al-Imam universities were subsequently arrested and detained without trial. Lawyers supporting the new group had their offices closed and one, Sulaiman al-Rushudi, was also detained. Scores of the committee's other supporters, including about sixty university professors, were either dismissed from their official positions, banned from travel or both.

This crackdown on peaceful dissent was the first major test of the Basic Law of Government, issued by King Fahd in March 1992. Although this law was hailed 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 such hopes to be premature. Ten days after the establishment of CDLR, the first nongovernmental organization of its kind to be formed in Saudi Arabia in decades, the government disbanded the group and jailed or dismissed its founders, most of whom were socially prominent and respected Islamist figures. The government-appointed clergy were induced to call for the banning of the group as un-Islamic, and to denounce its founders. Senior officials and the state-run media described the group as seditious or dismissed it as marginal.

According to its founders, the formation of the Islamist-inspired CDLR was in part prompted by widespread arrests and increased official harassment of Islamist activists. The Directorate of General Investigations (DGI), the secret police known as al-Mabahith, arrested and held without trial or formal charges hundreds of suspected followers of popular preachers and other sympathizers with Islamist groups during 1993. Scores arrested in Riyadh and al-Qasim were disciples of Salman al-'Awda and Safar al-Hawali, two popular Islamist speakers and university professors who advocated religion-based social and political reforms. The two scholars were banned in September from speaking in public and dismissed from their academic posts. Shaikh Ibrahim al-Dibayyan, another popular preacher, was arrested in February after he publicly criticized government policy in his sermons. In June, Shaikh Sa'id Ba Tarfiin Jidda, who advocated jihad (holy war) in Bosnia, and about twenty of his followers were also arrested. His followers, mostly from Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan, were suspected of supporting Islamist groups in Egypt and Afghanistan. For similar reasons, over ten local and foreign supporters of Usama Bin Ladin, a prosperous businessmen who financed the mujahideen of Afghanistan, were arrested in Jidda. In most cases, no charges were filed against the detainees, but they were interrogated about their political activities. Most of the Saudis detained were later released after they signed statements expressing their regret and pledging not to engage in further political activity. Some of those who declined to sign such statements remained in prison while others were released but dismissed from their government jobs and banned from travel. Most of the foreigners were deported.

A violent protest in March at the Rafha refugee camp 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. During the protest, fire was set to a camp administrative building and security forces subsequently opened fire to disperse the crowds. Following the incident, hundreds were detained. Many were known to have been tortured, in an apparent attempt by the authorities to find those who organized the protest.

Hostility between the refugees and the camp's guards predated this development. Since April 1991, a month after the Rafha camp was established for Iraqi refugees, there had been clashes between the camp's residents and guards in which scores of refugees were killed or injured. Refugees suspected of organizing protests were forcibly repatriated during 1991 and 1992. The government provided adequate levels of food, health care and education, and, until the March 1993, protest provided residents with additional monthly stipends. But the refugees' movement and their political expression and religious freedom were restricted. Less than 10,000 refugees were resettled in third countries between 1991 and the end of October, 1993, leaving about 25,000 refugees at the camp as of that date. The government denied press reports that it had forcibly repatriated some refugees after the March incident.

Middle East Watch received confirmed reports during 1993 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 on other sensitive parts of the body. Ill-treatment included prolonged incommunicado detention, sleep deprivation, threats, and insults. Visits by family members or lawyers were often denied for long periods.

There was one confirmed report of death in custody during the year. Hussein Ali al-Shuwaikhat, a nineteen-year-old Shi'a from Saihat in the Eastern Province, died on January 18 after he was transferred, bleeding, to a hospital. Although officials at the 'Awwamiyya Western Prison, where he had been kept since March 1991, assured his family that he had died of natural causes, no autopsy was permitted. Authorities rejected the family's request to investigate the incident, and al-Shuwaikhat's father was coerced into signing a statement – five days after the death – declaring the cause of death to be natural.

The number of judicial executions in Saudi Arabia reached a record level in the first seven months of 1993. According to official figures, during that period, sixty-three persons were executed, nearly all beheaded. This figure surpassed the total for all of 1992, and was more than double the 1991 figure. In almost all of these executions, defendants were convicted 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. Out of the sixty-three, over forty were beheaded for drug offenses – more than during the preceding five years put together. Between 1987, the year the death penalty was introduced for drug smuggling, and October 1992, thirty-eight were executed, according to Gen. Mohammed al-Maleki, a drug enforcement official.

Arrest and detention procedures continued to be 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 pre-trial detention, these procedures allowed detainees to 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.

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. This may be in part because of the Saudi legal system's over-reliance on confessions. Imprisonment and Detention Law No. 31 explicitly sanctioned flogging, indefinite solitary confinement, and deprivation of family visits, as methods for disciplining prisoners.

Detention without trial continued to be authorized for those involved in commercial disputes or business failures. Abdalla al-Rajhi, a forty-five-year-old Saudi banker detained without trial since 1979 when his firm collapsed, was released in February 1993. However, many others remained in debtors' prisons; some had been there for as long as ten years. Foreigners, estimated officially at about five million or 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. Although the March 1992 Basic Law of Government formally recognized, for the first time, the principle of an independent judiciary, Middle East Watch continued to receive reports from within the judiciary that judges periodically came under pressure from senior members of the royal family and other government officials to influence their decisions. Not surprisingly, judges remained 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), and thus had broad discretion to overrule judicial decisions. Provincial governors in Saudi Arabia, as representatives of the King and usually close relatives, also exercised their authority to review court decisions.

A twenty-seven-page report sharply critical of the judicial system in the Kingdom was circulated during the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna between June 14 and 25. Although written anonymously, Middle East Watch learned that the report was authored by a group of Saudi lawyers and judges. It was especially critical of the pervasive interference by members of the royal family in the judicial process.

The royal family's concentration of power – one that has few parallels in the world – was immunized from criticism by the absence of a free press or parliament. This left government officials and other prominent citizens, primarily members of the royal family and their associates, free to abuse their positions and act as if they were above the law. In early 1993, two men from the Qahtan tribe were killed after they had entered the estate of Prince Mish'al, King Fahd's brother, without his permission. Attempts by the families of the two men to bring the Prince, whom they accused of killing the two men, to trial were unsuccessful.

Expectations raised by the government when King Fahd decreed the Basic Law of Government in March 1992 were dashed by the experience of the subsequent eighteen months, in which there was no perceptible improvement in respect for human rights. Formally sanctioned discrimination based on gender or religious beliefs continued unabated. Glaring due process deficiencies in the Saudi penal system were not rectified: based on Shari'a, as interpreted by government-appointed clergy, the unwrittencriminal code for instance did not permit defendants to have legal representation in the courtroom. In May, the Council of Senior Scholars ratified the government's policy banning the formation of private human rights advocacy groups.

On August 20, King Fahd appointed the new Consultative Council, replacing a council by the same name that had been in existence since 1926 but had been almost completely ignored by the executive since 1953, when most of its powers were usurped by the King and his cabinet. 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 may 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.

During 1993, the government initiated a dialogue with Shi'a political figures in exile. In exchange for ceasing their political activity abroad and discontinuing their publications, the government released political prisoners and promised to consider seriously Shi'a grievances. On July 25, the government released over thirty Shi'a men, representing nearly all Shi'a activists still in jail on political and security-related charges. Four exiled leaders returned to the Kingdom and some met with the King, a rare occurrence.

The quid pro quo also took place. In September, exiled groups suspended their publications. The Reform Movement, based in London, suspended its monthly al-Jazeera al-Arabia (The Arabian Peninsula), which reported regularly on human rights violations in the Kingdom and translated reports by Western human rights groups. The International Committee for Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, a group affiliated with the Reform Movement, suspended Arabia Monitor, its monthly English-language publication issued in Washington. However, as of the end of October, there was no evident change in institutionalized discrimination against the Shi'a.

In 1993, Islamists intensified their public criticism of the government. In mosque sermons and clandestinely distributed leaflets and audiocassettes, they criticized corruption and favoritism and called for more political participation. They also sought greater autonomy for Islamic preachers, including freedom of expression, as well as an end to torture and arbitrary arrests and searches. A number of Islamist leaders who publicly criticized the government were dismissed from their government jobs and banned from travel or from public speaking. On September 26, Salman Fahd al-'Awda and Safar Abdel Rahman al-Hawali, two popular Islamist speakers and university professors, were asked by senior Ministry of Interior officials to sign a statement apologizing for speaking out against the government and promising never again to discuss the "State's internal, foreign, financial, media or other policies," or "communicate with anyone outside the country, or any activist inside the country, by telephone or fax." When they refused to sign, they were informed of their dismissal from their university teaching positions. They were also banned from recording speeches, leading prayers or publishing books or articles. In May, the Ministry of Interior had once again warned pilgrims and other travelers to the Kingdom against importing any "political" publications.

The government owned and operated all radio and television stations in the Kingdom, and it kept the privately owned local press on a very short leash, preventing criticism of government policies. During the year, three editors-in-chief-Khaled al-Ma'eena and Luqman Younis, both of the Arab News English daily, and Yousef Damanhouri of the Arabic daily al-Nadwa (Symposium) – were either dismissed or suspended from their positions for publishing materials considered offensive. A large number of foreign publications, including daily newspapers and weekly magazines, were barred from the country in 1993 on the grounds of their supposedly offensive content. Most visa applications by journalists from major U.S. and British news organizations were turned down.

During 1993, the government continued its efforts to expand its considerable influence over major regional and international news organizations. On August 4, a cooperation agreement was signed between Ali al-Sha'ir, Minister of Information and Jacques Taquet, director general of Radio Monte Carlo'sMiddle East Division. Under this unusual agreement, Radio Monte Carlo, which has a large audience in the Kingdom for its Arabic broadcasts, undertook to publicize "the government's position on political, economic and oil issues, emphasizing the great achievements that have taken place during the reign of King Fahd, Custodian of the Holy Shrines," according to a Ministry of Information statement. In the two previous years, Saudi businessmen had acquired the U.S. news agency United Press International and al-Hayat, a major Arabic daily, and MBC, a London-based satellite TV network.

The Right to Monitor

Since monitoring human rights violations was 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 either had to work clandestinely inside the country, at the risk of arrest, or operate outside the Kingdom. In 1993, the ability to monitor human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia became even more restricted, with the shutdown of groups reporting on human rights and the arrests of activists attempting to monitor violations.

On May 3, seven distinguished Islamist jurists and professors publicly announced the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. The government reacted swiftly and harshly. The same month, the Saudi government banned the group and began to arrest its founders and core supporters. Others were dismissed from their government positions, had their law offices closed or were banned from travel.

A few months later, another important source of human rights information dried up under government pressure. Leaders of the Reform Movement, the main Shi'a opposition group, agreed in August to suspend their activities abroad, which had included the distribution of human rights information by groups affiliated with them and the translation of reports by international human rights organizations. In September, it suspended the publication of Al-Jazeera al-Arabia (The Arabian Peninsula), an Arabic monthly affiliated with the movement. Published in London, the magazine regularly published articles on human rights violations, especially those related to the Shi'a minority. That month, the London-based International Committee for Human Rights in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, which had close ties to the Reform Movement, suspended the publication of Arabia Monitor, an English-language monthly issued from Washington, D.C. After its representatives met with King Fahd in October, the International Committee suspended all public reporting on human rights in Saudi Arabia.

The government allowed humanitarian organizations to operate in the country; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross maintained offices concerned mainly with the resettlement of Iraqi refugees and conditions at the Rafha refugee camp. However, no foreign human rights organizations were permitted to visit the country in 1993. As in the past, requests for information and inquiries that Middle East Watch made during the year on specific incidents of human rights violations went unanswered.

U.S. Policy

By virtue of a long and intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia spanning over fifty years, the United States is uniquely well-placed to help curb human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. During the 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton had cited Saudi Arabia, in a November 1992 magazine article, as a target for future human rights attention. Regrettably, his administration reverted to the practice of previous U.S. administrations, by emphasizing the special relationship and failing to criticize Saudi violations publicly. Human rights principles appeared 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 other important interests.

The broad range of cooperation between the two countries was premised on a U.S. commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia – a key goal of U.S. foreign policy. The Clinton administration reiterated this commitment. In his first visit to the region in February, Warren Christopher told Saudi leaders thatPresident Clinton's commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia "like that of every president since Franklin Roosevelt, is firm and constant." There was no public reference to human rights during those visits.

U.S. officials expressed their belief that the defense of the Arabian Peninsula was one of two key policy goals in the Middle East – the other being peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. In September and October 1992, Edward P. Djerejian, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, articulated this policy clearly in congressional testimony and other forums. David L. Mack, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, reiterated the same policy.

The administration's multi-tiered approach to ensuring Saudi Arabia's security included bilateral military arrangements and the provision of advanced U.S. weapons. A package of sophisticated weapons totaling $14 billion was signed in 1992, for delivery in 1992 and 1993. Although delivery of some of these system slowed down because of financial difficulties, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, at $4.2 billion, accounted for 31 percent of all U.S. arms sales in 1992, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service published in July. The U.S. military held periodic joint exercises with Saudi forces and maintained an enhanced naval presence in the Gulf with unrestricted access to Saudi facilities.

Considering this special relationship between the two countries, it was perhaps remarkable that the administration did not apparently consider utilizing its leverage to bring about a significant change in the Saudi human rights record. U.S. officials refrained in 1993 from voicing public criticism of Saudi human rights violations, some of which were catalogued, in some detail, in the State Department's most recent Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In 1993, U.S. officials reported progress in resolving a number of long-standing commercial disputes between U.S. citizens and Saudi entities. But, even when the victims were U.S. citizens – there are nearly 40,000 U.S. citizens in the Kingdom – they shied away from publicly criticizing Saudi human rights practices. In 1993, Saudi Arabia failed to notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of American citizens and declined to approve a bilateral consular treaty providing for notification and immediate access to detainees.

When, in May, Saudi authorities banned the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights and began to arrest its founders or dismiss them from their academic posts, the State Department refrained from criticizing the action. Despite the fact that embassy officials had met with the founders of the group before their arrest, a May 13 State Department written statement only promised that the U.S. Embassy would "look into the reports." Instead of addressing the Saudi action, the State Department went out of its way to defend the meeting as "routine, legitimate activity.... The U.S. is in no way interfering in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia. The meeting has been discussed between our two governments and it does not affect our excellent relations." On May 17, when a State Department spokesman was repeatedly questioned by reporters about the U.S. reaction, he declined again to comment on the Saudi action, saying that the Department was still "looking into it."

Despite the fact the State Department's own Country Reports, published in early 1993, revealed detailed knowledge of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, a State Department spokesman declined to criticize the Saudi ban on public Christian worship, an issue researched extensively by U.S. diplomats. On September 14, asked whether he had any comment about reports of persecution of Shi'a and Christians, the spokesman declined to comment directly or to criticize the government. He added, "I will say that we, of course, support religious freedom. Our most recent human rights report contained substantial coverage of the situation in Saudi Arabia, and we have made our views and our concerns known about this at the highest levels within the Saudi government."

On March 23, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, ruling that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) denied U.S. courts jurisdiction to hear suits by U.S. citizens against foreign governments unless the dispute related to commercial activity. The court decided that this did not apply to Nelson's suit against Saudi Arabian government agencies, on the grounds that police action, no matter how monstrous, was by definition a sovereign matter. Scott Nelson, a former safety engineer, had filed legal action against Saudi authorities for torture and unlawfuldetention. The Bush administration filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Saudi position that U.S. courts had no jurisdiction in this case (Human Rights Watch filed a brief with the court in support of Nelson's claim).

On September 23, 1992, despite objections by the Bush administration, the House Judiciary Committee adopted an amendment to the FSIA enabling Americans subjected to torture abroad, and the families of American victims to extrajudicial execution abroad, to obtain remedy in U.S. courts. The bill did not reach the House floor before the end of the term. A similar amendment was introduced in the new Congress. In September 1993 the House Judiciary Committee adopted this new measure, adding the crime of genocide to the list of human rights abuses included in the previous amendment. The Clinton administration did not express a view on this amendment. A State Department official told Middle East Watch in October that the administration was "still formulating a position" on the proposed legislation.

The Work of Middle East Watch

In 1993, Middle East Watch's Saudi Arabia work focused on advocacy. In one notable case, on January 29, Canadian authorities granted asylum to a Saudi woman known as Nada (her family name was withheld). Nada fled Saudi Arabia in 1991, claiming fear of persecution for her feminist beliefs. Middle East Watch had supported Nada's claim and urged Canadian authorities, in 1992, to grant her asylum. After the Canadian landmark decision was announced, Middle East Watch issued a statement applauding the decision, and called for wider application of the principle of granting asylum to women who were persecuted on grounds either of their gender or feminist beliefs. In March, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board issued guidelines widening the scope of the definition of women refugees, giving support to the concept that women should be treated as a social group under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention. In May, Middle East Watch called on the U.S. to introduce similar measures in its immigration policy.

In April, Middle East Watch called on the Congress to adopt legislation allowing for legal action in the U.S. to remedy human rights violations committed abroad. The recommendation was in response to the Supreme Court decision in Saudi Arabia v. Nelson. Middle East Watch had acted as amicus curiae in support of Scott Nelson, an American worker who was suing the government of Saudi Arabia for torture and arbitrary arrest during his employment with a Saudi government agency.

When Saudi university professors were arrested in connection with the founding of CDLR, Middle East Watch participated in a campaign to free them. Human Rights Watch's International Committee on Academic Freedom sent similar protests.

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