Saudi Arabia 2020

Repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly intensified. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.

Background

The country maintained economic and political sanctions against Qatar, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in the ongoing political crisis in the Gulf that began in 2017.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the long-running armed conflict in Yemen continued to be implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law (see Yemen entry).

In March, the Saudi Press Agency announced that the Control and Anti-Corruption Authority (the Nazaha) had arrested 298 public sector officials and was investigating them for corruption.

In May, in response to plummeting oil prices and the economic impact of COVID-19, the authorities introduced austerity measures, tripling Value Added Tax to 15% and ending the cost of living allowance for state employees.

In November, the G20 summit was held virtually, chaired by Saudi Arabia. More than 220 civil society organizations pledged not to participate in the parallel civil society engagement process to protest against Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

Freedoms of expression, association and assembly

The authorities escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including through a crackdown on online expression and undue restrictions on freedom of expression related to the government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. They harassed, arbitrarily detained and prosecuted government critics, human rights defenders, family members of activists and many others.

In March, the Public Prosecution announced that social media posts that question, or instigate against, the COVID-19 curfew would be punished under Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, which carries penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of almost SAR3 million (US$800,000).

Courts frequently invoked the Anti-Cyber Crime Law to sentence government critics and human rights defenders for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, citing tweets or other peaceful online expression as evidence.

The authorities continued to ban the formation of political parties, trade unions and independent human rights groups, and to prosecute and imprison those who set up or participated in unlicensed human rights organizations. All gatherings, including peaceful demonstrations, remained prohibited under an order issued by the Ministry of Interior in 2011.

Members of the ruling family, former governmental officials and their relatives were among those arbitrarily arrested or detained. A year after her arrest, an official Twitter account confirmed in April the detention without charge of Basma bint Saud Al Saud, a daughter of former King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and a writer and human rights activist. Her family expressed concern about her health as she has underlying conditions that require medical treatment.

Human rights defenders

The authorities arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and imprisoned human rights defenders and family members of women’s rights activists for their peaceful activities and human rights work, including under the Counter-Terrorism Law and Anti-Cyber Crime Law. By the end of the year, virtually all Saudi Arabian human rights defenders were in detention without charge, or were on trial or serving prison terms.

Among those arbitrarily detained for prolonged periods without appearing before a judge or being charged was Mohammed al-Bajadi, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), detained since May 2018.

In April, Abdullah al-Hamid, a prisoner of conscience and founding member of ACPRA, died in detention following medical neglect. He had written extensively on human rights and the independence of the judiciary.1 In late April, the authorities arrested writers and others for expressing sympathy over his death, including Abdulaziz al-Dakhil, an economist, writer and former Deputy Finance Minister.

More than two years after a wave of arrests targeted women human rights defenders and supporters, the authorities continued to detain incommunicado Loujain al-Hathloul and Nassima al-Sada for between two to four months at a time. In December, Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison, after her case was transferred to the SCC in November. The court suspended two years and 10 months of the total prison term. Several other women activists continued to be detained and on trial before the Criminal Court in Riyadh for their human rights work or expression.

Unfair trials

Grossly unfair trials continued before the SCC, a counter-terror court notorious for due process violations including mass trials.2 Among those who continued to be tried or were convicted after such trials were a woman human rights defender, religious clerics and activists charged with offences, including capital offences, arising from the peaceful expression of their views.

A mass trial of 68 Palestinian, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian nationals facing trumped-up charges under the Counter-Terrorism Law began in March before the SCC. Two of them, Mohammed al-Khudari and his son Hani al-Khudari, were charged with “joining a terrorist entity” understood to be the Hamas de facto authorities in Gaza. Both were forcibly disappeared during the first month of their detention and were detained incommunicado and in solitary confinement for two months. They had no access to legal representation from their arrest onwards.

In June, 14 individuals detained since April 2019 for their peaceful support of the women’s rights movement and women human rights defenders were charged under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, the Counter-Terrorism Law or both. Among them was Salah al-Haidar, the son of Aziza al-Yousef, a woman human rights defender who remained on trial for her women’s rights work.

In September, eight people received final sentences for the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018. The Criminal Court in Riyadh commuted five initial death sentences, and sentenced all eight to prison terms ranging from seven to 20 years. The authorities permitted the attendance of diplomats, but closed the trial to media and independent observers. Additionally, the identity of those on trial and the charges they faced were not disclosed.

Also in September, the SCC sentenced writer and academic Abdullah al-Maliki to seven years in prison for his tweets and other online posts in which he wrote about freedom of expression and political representation and defended ACPRA members. He was also accused of hosting an intellectual forum to discuss books and philosophy, on charges of “inciting public opinion against the country’s rulers.”

Death penalty

Courts continued to impose death sentences, and carried out scores of executions for a wide range of crimes.

In April, a royal order announced an end to the use of the death penalty against people aged under 18 at the time of the crime for offences that attract discretionary punishments under Shari’a (Islamic law). The order was aligned to the 2018 Law on Juveniles, which prevents judges from imposing discretionary death sentences on those aged under 15. This law does not prevent judges handing down death sentences for that age group in the case of hadd crimes (those with fixed and severe punishments under Shari’a) or crimes punishable by qisas (retaliation).

In August, in a long-overdue development, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced that the country’s Public Prosecutor had ordered a review of the death sentences against Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoun, who were at imminent risk of execution.3 The three young men had been arrested in 2012 when children and charged with offences relating to their participation in anti-government protests in the Eastern Province. In December, the public prosecution also reviewed its call for the execution of Mohammad al-Faraj, a member of the country’s Shi’a minority, who was arrested at the age of 15 for his “participation in [anti-government] protests” in the Eastern Province, and instead demanded a prison term.

The authorities failed to abide by international fair trial standards in capital cases, often holding summary proceedings in secret and without allowing defendants access to representation or legal assistance. Foreign nationals often did not have access to translation services throughout the various stages of detention and trial.

Corporal judicial punishment

In April, the Minister of Justice issued a circular to all courts to implement the Supreme Court’s decision to end discretionary flogging punishments and replace them with prison sentences and/or fines. Flogging continued in cases where the punishment is mandatory under Shari’a.

It remained unknown whether the discretionary flogging punishment imposed on blogger Raif Badawi had been dropped. In 2014, he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in jail followed by a 10-year travel ban, and a large fine for “insulting Islam” and creating an online forum for debate. In January 2015, he received the first 50 lashes. Further floggings were delayed, initially on medical grounds and since then for unknown reasons.

Women and girls’ rights

In July, members of the Shura Council, a body that advises the monarchy, proposed an amendment in the executive by-law to the Saudi Nationality Law to give permanent residency, without any fee or lengthy procedures, to the children of Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals. This was presented as an interim solution to shortcomings of the Nationality Law, which bars Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals from passing on their citizenship to their children.

In a positive development, also in July, a court ruled that “an adult, rational woman living independently is not a crime” in the case of Maryam al-Otaibi, a Saudi Arabian woman on trial in a case filed by her father – also her legal guardian – for leaving her family home. Maryam al-Otaibi had actively participated in the campaign to end the guardianship system. It remained unclear whether this signalled the authorities’ intention to end the criminalization of women fleeing their homes without the permission of their guardian, which allowed male guardians to initiate “absentees” cases against them.

Women and girls continued to face discrimination in law and practice in relation to marriage, divorce and inheritance, and remained inadequately protected from sexual and other forms of violence. Those who had experienced domestic abuse continued to need a male guardian’s permission to leave shelters.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

“Homosexuality” remained prohibited in Saudi Arabia, punishable by flogging and imprisonment.

In July, Yemeni LGBTI rights defender Mohamed al-Bokari was sentenced to 10 months in prison followed by deportation to Yemen for charges related to violating public morality, promoting homosexuality online and imitating women. He was arrested after he appeared in a video defending the personal freedoms of LGBTI people.

Migrants’ rights

In March, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities extended residency permits of foreign workers without charge, and the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the release of 250 foreign detainees held for non-violent immigration and residency offences.

However, the approximately 10 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia continued to be governed by the kafala (sponsorship) system, which gives employers disproportionate powers over them and prevents them from leaving the country or changing jobs without the permission of their employers, increasing their vulnerability to labour abuses and exploitation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this situation – alongside dire living conditions, scarce legal protection and limited access to preventive health care and treatment – put migrant workers in an even more vulnerable position and at higher risk from COVID-19.

From March onwards, thousands of Ethiopian migrants, including pregnant women and children, were arbitrarily detained in harsh conditions in at least five detention centres across the country. Detainees said that they lacked adequate food, water, health care, sanitation facilities and clothes. Cells were severely overcrowded and prisoners could not go outside. The specific needs of pregnant and lactating women were not addressed. Newborn babies, infants and teenagers were detained in the same dire conditions as adults.4

While it was difficult to establish the scale of deaths in detention and corroborate all such allegations, detainees interviewed said that they had seen seven bodies of inmates. Three women said they had had contact with a female detainee whose baby had died in detention. Eight detainees said they had experienced and witnessed beatings by guards and two reported that guards had administered electric shocks as punishment.


  1. Saudi Arabia: Prisoner of conscience Dr Abdullah al-Hamid dies while in detention (Press release, 24 April)
  2. Saudi Arabia: Muzzling critical voices – Politicized trials before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (MDE 23/1633/2020)
  3. Saudi Arabia: Review of young men’s death sentences overdue step towards justice (Press release, 27 August)
  4. Saudi Arabia: “This is worse than COVID-19”: Ethiopians abandoned and abused in Saudi prisons (MDE 23/3125/2020)