WORLD REPORT 2000 - Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Developments

The lack of basic freedoms of expression and association, institutionalized discrimination particularly against women and religious minorities, and the use of corporal and capital punishments to suppress and intimidate political opposition remained Saudi Arabia's most pressing human rights problems during 1999. An absolute monarchy, the state allowed no criticism of the ruling family, established religion, or the government and used the threat of arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture, and execution to silence criticism.

Crown Prince `Abdullah bin `Abd al-`Aziz progressively took over the reins of power from his brother King Fahd, who had suffered a stroke in 1995, and was refreshingly outspoken about the country's economic problems, the fight against corruption, and the need for women to play a greater role in society. "We will allow no one, whoever they are, to undermine her or marginalize her active role in serving her religion and country" he stated in April, causing an unprecedented debate in Saudi society about the role of women. However, women continued to face institutionalized discrimination affecting their freedom of movement and association and their right to equality in employment and education. They were not allowed to drive, needed written permission from male relatives to travel, could not marry non-Muslims and their testimonies in court were equal to half those of a man. In response to the public debate, and perhaps as an indication of differences within the royal family, Minister of Interior Prince Nayef declared "we have no intention to allow women to drive." Women were compelled to cover themselves from head to toe in public, and those who did not risked beatings or detention by the Mutawwa'in, the religious police of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforced Islamic norms by monitoring public behavior.

Saudi labor laws prohibited the right to organize and bargain collectively and gave employers extensive control over foreign workers' freedom of movement. Many foreign workers continued to suffer under oppressive working conditions and were denied legitimate claims to wages, benefits, or compensation. Labor protections did not extend to domestic workers and labor courts rarely enforced the few protections provided by law when workers sought to have their terms of contracts honored or pursued other claims.

While unemployment among the Saudi working-age population soared to around 27 percent, the campaign begun in October 1997 to limit the number of foreign workers continued. In September, Al-Bilad newspaper, quoting General Hassan Rashwan, head of Mecca's passport department, reported the arrest in the city of more than 10,000 foreigners without valid residency permits. Official figures released at the end of 1998 indicated that 1.5 million people, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, had been expelled while a further one million had regularized their residency.

At this writing the number of executions carried out in Saudi Arabia had risen to eighty-four, more than doubling the total of twenty-nine in 1998. Death sentences were typically imposed for such crimes as murder, rape, drug trafficking, and armed robbery, with the executions, usually beheadings, carried out in public after Friday prayers. The majority of those publicly beheaded were foreigners, including two Nigerian women, Hawa Faruk and Aisha Saada Kassem. Until the mid-nineties women were usually executed by firing squad in prisons and not in public. Public floggings was another type of cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment handed down in Saudi Arabia. Victims included two Filipinos who were found guilty in August of performing illegal abortions and sentenced to two years and 700 hundred lashes each. Earlier, in April King Fahd had pardoned a Filipino nurse, Violeta Miranda, who was facing a seven-month jail term and 150 lashes for possession of five ounces of methamphetamine hydrochloride, as an act of goodwill ahead of a visit by a member of the ruling family to Manila. Miranda had admitted carrying the package for a friend but did not know its contents.

Concern about cruel punishments was further heightened by unfair legal procedures and by other factors which continued to undermine the independence of the judiciary, encouraged arbitrariness in sentencing, and allowed great scope for manipulation of the justice system by well-connected interested parties. These factors included the lack of a publicly disseminated penal code or code of criminal procedures; the broad powers enjoyed by the king in appointing and dismissing judges, and in creating special courts; and the wide discretion afforded judges in defining criminal offenses and setting punishments, including floggings, amputations, and beheading.

Under the Principles of Arrest, Temporary Confinement, and Preventative Regulations issued by the minister of interior in 1983, detainees had no right to judicial review, could be held for fifty-one days before their detention was reviewed by the regional governor, and could be held indefinitely if neither the governor nor the minister ordered their release or trial. Detainees had no right to legal counsel, to examine witnesses, or to call witnesses in their own defense. Saudi laws also allowed convictions on the basis of uncorroborated confessions. The minister of interior had virtually unlimited authority over suspects in "crimes involving national security," which were defined so broadly as to encompass nonviolent opposition to the government.

On July 2, clerics Salman al-Awadh, Safar al-Hawali, and Nasir al-'Omar were released after spending almost five years in detention without trial for publicly criticizing the government. As of this writing Sa'id bin Zaghir, a fourth cleric detained at the same time, remained in detention. In December 1998 some 3,500 prisoners were reported released as part of the annual holy month of Ramadhan amnesty.

Muslim religious practices deemed heterodox by government-appointed Islamic scholars, and all non-Muslim religious practices, were banned and subject to criminal prosecution. Both citizens and foreigners residing in Saudi Arabia were required to carry identity cards indicating the bearer's nationality and religion. While private religious worship appeared to be tolerated, public non-Muslim religious activities were not permitted and worshipers attracting official attention risked arrest and deportation. The U.S. State Department reported in its Annual Report on International Religious Freedom , published on September 9, that a Korean national was arrested in November 1998, accused of Christian proseletizing, and deported in January.

Grand Mufti `Abd al-"Aziz "Abdullah bin Baz died on May 13. As Saudi Arabia's highest ranking cleric and head of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars for three decades, bin Baz's religious rulings had strongly impacted on Saudi life, including the ban on women's driving. He was replaced by Sheikh `Abd al-'Aziz bin `Abdullah al-Sheikh.

The government continued its long practice of discrimination against the Shi'a community, which was often viewed with suspicion, particularly after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Shi'a faced unequal access to social services and government jobs and were rarely permitted to build private Shi'a mosques or community centers. While previous restrictions on public Shi'a religious processions, such as on the holy day of `Ashura, no longer pertained so long as marchers did not display banners or symbols, according to the Report on International Religious Freedom, in November 1998 several Mutawwa'in attacked and killed an elderly Shi'a leader in Hofuf for repeating the call to prayer twice -a traditional Shi'a practice.

The government owned all domestic radio and television stations, and closely monitored the domestic privately-owned but publicly subsidized print media, allowing no criticism of Islam, the ruling family, or the government. A 1982 media policy statement still in force instructed journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Information appointed and could remove editors in chief and provided guidelines to newspapers on sensitive issues. Foreign publications were often censored or banned, and several important foreign-based print and broadcasting media were owned by members of the ruling family or their associates, including United Press International, al-Hayat , a major regional daily newspaper, and MBC, a London-based satellite television network.

Local access to the Internet was made available to the Saudi public in December 1998 once filtering technology was in place to screen out materials deemed by the authorities as dangerous for the nation's security or public morals. The government had asked the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) to create a proxy server for all Internet Service Providers which would block restricted sites according to an updated list of those deemed undesirable, however, in practice it appears that the system could not prevent some users from accessing unsanctioned sites and chat programs. In July, according to Dr Fahd Hoymany of KACST, the number of internet users had risen to 30,000.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights organizations could not operate under the strict controls on information and harsh suppression of freedom of conscience or expression. Government monitoring of telephone and mail communications created a climate of fear which prevented Saudis from commenting on human rights conditions there. Saudis living abroad often requested anonymity when providing human rights information, so as to avoid reprisals against their families inside the country. Two groups in exile, the Committee for the Defence of Rights, headed by Muhammad al Mas'ari, and the Islamic Reform Movement, headed by Sa'ad al-Faqih, publicly criticized the Saudi government and the lack of freedoms and rights in the country. Amnesty International reported that on November 30, authorities arrested and briefly detained al-Mas'ari's sister, Suha, upon her arrival from the United Kingdom. Although the reasons for her arrest where not known and she was released a week later without charge, her brother's activities in exile may have been a strong factor. No international organization has been granted permission to carry out research in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Foreign journalists needing visas to enter Saudi Arabia were often refused access.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

Of an original 33,000 Iraqi civilians, refugees, and prisoners of war allowed refuge in Saudi Arabia in 1991, following the end of the Gulf war, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees reported that the agency continued to monitor the situation of a remaining 5,390 who remained held in Rafha refugee camp near the Saudi-Iraq border. While most of the refugees were resettled or voluntarily repatriated to Iraq, none were granted permanent asylum in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, and there are no legislative procedures for granting asylum to refugees.

United States

The U.S. does not have a formal defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, but the informal and discreet security relationship between the two countries is nonetheless extensive. Saudi Arabia continued to be a major customer for U.S. manufactured weapons systems as well as training and maintenance contracts, and the U.S. had 4,873 military personnel in the country as of September 1998. Although since October 1997 Saudi Arabia has not allowed the U.S. to launch air attacks against Iraq from Saudi territory, the government did cooperate by supporting airborne refueling and command and control operations. According to the latest U.S. Congressional Research Service annual report on conventional weapons, U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia increased from $10.5 billion in 1991-94 to $16.4 billion in 1995-98. The State Department reported that in fiscal year 1998 it authorized commercial military exports to Saudi Arabia worth $528.8 million. As of this writing, the Defense Department had not declassified its report of direct government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) for this period.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Saudi Arabia in late January to introduce Frank Ricciardone, the newly-appointed "special representative for the transition of Iraq," to high Saudi officials. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson visited in February to discuss investments by U.S. firms in Saudi oil and natural gas industries. When Secretary of Defense William Cohen met with Saudi leaders in Riyadh in March he announced the sale of advanced air-to-air missiles and an increase in joint ground forces training activities. Robert Seiple, who was sworn in as the first ambassador at large for international religious freedom in May, visited Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia figured prominently in the State Department's first annual report on international religious freedom. The Saudi chapter stated that "freedom of religion does not exist" in the country and that "Islamic practice is limited to that of the Wahabi order." The report claimed that U.S. officials, including the ambassador, raised the issue of religious freedom on "numerous occasions," but the only specific references were to meetings around issues of mistreatment of Christians residing in the country and accused of proseletizing.

Other than the chapter on Saudi Arabia in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 , U.S. officials made no public comments on Saudi Arabia's human rights record, although the U.S. statement on women's rights at the 55th session of the Commission on Human Rights observed that "[w]omen in Saudi Arabia continue to face institutionalized discrimination affecting their right to equality in employment and education." Saudi Arabia, however, was not mentioned in the State Department's budget presentation to Congress in connection with programs to promote democratic values, civil society, and human rights.