Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 - Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Developments

In 1995 Saudi Arabia experienced further deterioration in human rights observance. There was a four-fold increase in the number of executions, mostly of foreign suspected drug traffickers. One Islamist opposition activist was also beheaded, the first activist to be put to death since the rise of Islamist opposition during the Gulf War. 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 were arbitrarily detained without trial. 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 Muslims who do not follow the kingdom's strict religious code continued unabated.

The government's crackdown on peaceful dissent by Islamist groups, begun in 1993, continued during the year. Most detainees were held without trial. Those who were put on trial were tried before secret tribunals without the benefit of legal counsel. On August 11, 1995, the government of Saudi Arabia beheaded Abdalla al-Hudhaif, a supporter of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), a banned Saudi opposition group established in May 1993 by Islamist jurists and professors. He was convicted in a secret trial in which nine other Islamists were given lengthy prison sentences. The execution marked the first time an Islamist activist was executed in Saudi Arabia since the rise of Islamist opposition during the Gulf War. Al-Hudhaif, a thirty-three-year-old businessman and father of six, was accused of throwing acid on an intelligence officer, possession of firearms, and "fomenting dissension" by supporting the London-based CDLR and distributing its leaflets. This attack was the only incident of violence that the government attributed to the Islamist opposition since the beginning of its public activity, which has been otherwise restricted to peaceful means, including public rallies, speeches and the distribution of leaflets and audio cassettes.

The Saudi government, in announcing the verdicts of the secret tribunal, accused its opponents of rebellion and heresy—capital offenses in Saudi Arabia. The judicial proceedings were marred throughout by violations of due process of law, including the use of coerced confessions, denial of legal counsel and blatant interference by government officials. For example, at first, the tribunal sentenced al-Hudhaif to twenty years in prison, but the Ministry of Interior protested the lightness of sentence and demanded a retrial. The judiciary complied, and in the second review, al-Hudhaif was sentenced to death.

The defendant was informed of the first sentence in May 1995, but the decision to put him to death—which was reportedly made in early July and ratified by King Fahd on July 10—was kept secret until August 12, a day after the execution. The beheading was carried out in secret, an exception to the rule of public executions. The authorities reportedly rejected al-Hudhaif's family's requests to hand over his body to conduct religious burial services. Instead, he was buried by the government, fueling speculation that he had been tortured before he was killed. The government justified this unprecedentedly harsh sentence by citing the need to combat dissension and maintain the security and stability of the state. It cited other offenses that the condemned man had allegedly committed, including the possession of weapons and his support for CDLR and the distribution of its publications, which were usually highly critical of Saudi leaders.

In a reference to the CDLR, the government's statement and the court judgment referred repeatedly to the defendant's "support for the so-called Committee for the Defense of Rights, a group that has declared disobedience to the rulers and recanted the pledge of loyalty to the ruler of the nation" and his "distribution of its publications and sheltering those who did." It also referred to his "disrespect and disobedience to the ruler of the community and to the nation's religious scholars, who have condemned this group as an illegitimate entity, warned of its dangers and called for fighting it."

Nine other Islamists, including two university professors and a lecturer, were given lengthy prison sentences by the same tribunal, which cited their support for CDLR among the grounds for the conviction. Two of the convicted were accused of conspiracy to attack the intelligence officer although they had already been in detention for weeks when the attack took place. Other than the defendants' apparent support for CDLR, the government presented no evidence that the attack was authorized by CDLR, which was not known to advocate the use of violence.

The campaign against the nonviolent Islamist opposition continued during 1995. 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.

Most of the detainees were suspected supporters of the two jailed opposition leaders, Shaikh Salman al-Audah and Shaikh Safar al-Hawali, both university professors and religious leaders who had been banned from speaking in public, dismissed from their academic posts in September 1993, and were detained since September 1994. Those detained also included founders and supporters of CDLR.

Although no formal charges were filed against most 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 prohibitions. An August 12, 1995, official statement branded the Islamist opponents as heretics, referring to the CDLR as a group that has "strayed beyond the pale of Islam by sowing the seeds of dissension when they declared their disobedience to the ruler of the nation to whom they had pledged loyalty and expressed their utter disregard for the Ulema, whom they accused of failing to perform their duty." The government had already secured an opinion from the Council of Senior Scholars denouncing the CDLR as a heresy. If convicted as heretics, many of the detained Islamist opponents could face severe punishments, including the death penalty.

There was a marked increase during 1995 of reports 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 beaten with bamboo sticks and plastic-covered truncheons. Ill-treatment included prolonged incommunicado detention, sleep deprivation for long periods, threats of violence and execution, and insults. Visits by family members or lawyers were often denied for long periods.

There was a four-fold increase in the number of executions during 1995 over the previous year. During the first nine months, 182 people were executed, compared to fifty-three in all of 1994. Most were beheaded in public. Most were foreigners who were suspected of smuggling drugs, including mild sedatives, sleeping pills and stimulants, into the country. The summary proceedings which resulted in these harsh sentences fell far short of international standards for fair trials. Most of the defendants were not represented by lawyers at the trials or assisted in preparing their defense. In 1995, there was also a marked increase in the application of judicially-ordered corporal punishment, including flogging for a variety of crimes and amputations 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 practice applied equally to foreigners, 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, their number 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 abuse their positions. In 1994, there were several reports of unpunished abuses by members of the royal family, including murder and beatings of Saudi citizens and foreign residents.

Not surprisingly, the newly appointed Consultative Council failed to address human rights concerns. 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's own bylaws, 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 discussion or act as a check on human rights abuses. Although all of the Council's meetings—after the inaugural session—were held in secret, Human Rights Watch/Middle East learned that the Council did not make any independent decisions regarding civil rights or other controversial issues. Few officials were instructed by King Fahd to brief the council in private sessions, and no members were known to have seriously questioned government policy in these sessions.

As a result of the government's crackdown, opposition activity went nearly completely underground or into exile. Mosque sermons, books, leaflets and audiocassettes, which in the past openly criticized corruption and favoritism and called for more political participation, were muted during 1995, as the government enforced its strict ban on public speaking, assembly, and association. In addition to arresting hundreds of Islamists, the government 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 Saudi 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. The government exercises considerable influence over major regional and international news organizations. Royal family members and their close associates owned key news organizations, 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. MBC in turn acquired the Arab Network of America (ANA), previously a private radio and television cable network with services in most U.S. metropolitan areas. After it changed owners, ANA canceled programs that aired views critical of Saudi policies. During 1995, there were reports that the British Broadcasting Corporation Arabic Television, a joint venture between the BBC and a company owned by a member of the Saudi royal family, canceled programs unfavorable to the Saudi government.

Although the Saudi government banned the importation and the use of satellite dishes in 1994, it has not moved to confiscate those already in use in the kingdom. In March 1994, a royal decree banned television satellite dishes, imposing a fine equivalent to US$26,667 for possessing and $133,333 for importing the equipment. In June, in an apparent response to satellite-transmitted 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.

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. Saudi 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 1995, the ability to monitor human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia was handicapped by the continued shutdown of opposition groups reporting abuses and the arrests of opposition 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. The mainstream Islamist opposition group, CDLR, resumed its activities from London, publishing regular reports on arrests of Islamist activists. Another Islamist group, the Advice and Reformation Committee, was established in London, led by Usama bin Ladin, a Saudi businessman who was accused of supporting radical groups in the region and stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994.

The Reform Movement, the main Shi'a opposition group, refrained from conducting any public activities in 1995 outside Saudi Arabia, in exchange for government promises 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 1995. Saudi government offices consistently failed to respond to Human Rights Watch/Middle East's inquiries and requests for information. However, in October, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, reversed a long standing policy and extended a conditional invitation to Human Rights Watch/Middle East to visit Saudi Arabia.

U.S. and European Policies

By virtue of an important strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia spanning over fifty years, the United States was 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. 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, high level meetings regularly took place between the two governments, but U.S. officials refrained from publicly expressing any concern over human rights violations.

The defense of Saudi Arabia was a key goal of U.S. foreign policy that the Clinton administration emphasized from the beginning of its term and repeated several times during 1995. This commitment was demonstrated during the year through the assignment of a large number of U.S. military advisers with the Saudi military, delivery of sophisticated U.S.-made weapons to Saudi Arabia, holding of military exercises by U.S. forces in the Gulf, regular high level visits by military officials of both countries, and the overall upgrading of the permanent U.S. military presence in the Gulf—renamed the Fifth Fleet. Secretary of Defense William Perry visited Saudi Arabia in March and Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz, minister of defense and second deputy prime minister, visited the United States in late October and met with senior administration officials, including President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

In March, after his visit to Riyadh, Defense Secretary William Perry said that he had received guarantees from Saudi Arabia for U.S. military access to its ports and airfields after he had shared with Saudi officials spy photo evidence of Iraq's new military infrastructure. "We agreed that continued United States access to Saudi bases and ports is the key to quick, forceful response to aggression," Secretary Perry said, adding that Iraq had been using what limited revenues it had to rebuild the military infrastructure destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War. Secretary Perry said that the two nations, which enjoyed "good relations for over fifty years," shared the belief that the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) should improve their military readiness in the face of potential threats from Iraq and Iran. "Saudi Arabia is an island of stability in a sea of trouble," Secretary Perry said, adding that Washington and Riyadh were committed to working together to maintain stability for the region. The Secretary said that he had received expressions of support for basing supplies for a U.S. armored division in the Gulf region. Supplies for three brigades would support an entire U.S. armored division—about 15,000 soldiers. Equipment for one brigade had already been stored in Kuwait, while another agreement was being negotiated to store a second brigade in Qatar. Secretary Perry said that no formal agreement was reached on storing the equipment in Saudi Arabia, but that he was confident the issue would be worked out in time.

The bilateral military arrangements included the sale of sophisticated weapons, with Saudi Arabia accounting for over one fourth of total U.S. military sales. In September, Saudi Arabia received the first group of seventy-two F-15S fighter bombers contracted for immediately after the Gulf War.

In addition to military hardware, Saudi Arabia was a major source of large commercial contracts with U.S. companies. After intensive lobbying by senior administration officials, including President Clinton, Saudi Arabia awarded the Boeing Company and the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation with a $6 billion dollar contract and gave American Telephone and Telegraph a $4 billion dollar contract to expand the kingdom's telephone network. U.S. firms in general increased their investments in Saudi Arabia, making the U.S. by far the largest single foreign investor in the kingdom.

In September, Raymond Mabus, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, participated in a tour of major U.S. cities aimed at encouraging U.S. businesses to invest in the region, especially in the countries that were considered to be promoting the peace process. In his speeches Mabus praised the Saudi government's support for the peace process and reassured U.S. businesses that although Saudi Arabia lives among some "bad neighbors," referring to Iran and Iraq, the internal situation in the country was "very stable," emphasizing that Saudi Arabia plays a major role in supporting the U.S. in an area of vital interest to the U.S.

Occasional references to the need for promoting human rights in the Middle East in general were never followed by statements of concern about serious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia or the lack of political participation in the kingdom, where no elections of any kind were held and no public independent expression was permitted. With the exception of the annual recitation of human rights abuses in the kingdom in the U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994, U.S. officials refrained from commenting on human rights, even when Saudi Arabia beheaded Abdalla al-Hudhaif in August—the first opposition activist to be executed—and when the rate of execution in the country for nonviolent drug offenses quadrupled during the year.

The policies of major European powers toward human rights in Saudi Arabia paralleled those of the U.S. in subordinating human rights to military and commercial ties. Both the United Kingdom and France assiduously cultivated the Saudi government for additional military and commercial contracts. In October, Charles Million, France's minister of defense, visited Saudi Arabia to promote French-Saudi military cooperation, including France's proposal to sell large numbers of France's advanced battle tanks. Million's visit was to be followed later in the year by visits by ministers of interior and foreign affairs, in preparation for a visit by French President Jacques Chirac scheduled for early 1996. France has been a major source of weaponry for the Saudi Arabian navy, which since 1980 has purchased French-made warships, missiles, and naval attack helicopters. In November 1994, France and Saudi Arabia signed a US$3.8 billion contract for military equipment and training. Despite the many occasions in which Saudi and French officials met during 1995, French officials refrained from publicly voicing concerns over human rights abuses.

In an apparent effort to safeguard its close military and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, the British government was also silent on human rights abuses. In addition, during 1995, the British government took measures to prevent Saudi citizens from expressing their opposition to their government from London. The British authorities expelled Ahmed al-Zahrani, a former Saudi diplomat who defected and sought asylum in the U.K. after his book on Saudi policy was criticized by the Saudi ministry of interior. The British government also attempted to deport Dr. Muhammed al-Mas'ari, another Saudi dissident and spokesman of the CDLR, but was thwarted by British courts.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East

In 1995, despite the Saudi government's failure to approve Human Rights Watch/Middle East's request for an official mission to the kingdom, we continued our monitoring of human rights conditions and advocacy on behalf of victims of abuse in Saudi Arabia.

In July and August, a Human Rights Watch/Middle East representative investigated the repressive measures taken by the Saudi government against its political opponents since 1993. A report on the results of the investigation was pending.

In August, Human Rights Watch/Middle East issued a statement protesting the execution of the first Saudi Islamist opponent since the rise of Islamist opposition during the Gulf War. It also condemned the secret trial that resulted in harsh sentences for nine other Islamists.

In October, the Saudi ambassador to the United States reversed a longstanding policy and extended a conditional invitation for Human Rights Watch/Middle East to visit Saudi Arabia.

This report covers the events of 1995

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