Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Saudi Arabia

There was no significant change in the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia between 1 July and 31 December 2016. We remain concerned about the use of the death penalty, restrictions on freedom of expression and the limitation of women’s rights.

Although Saudi Arabia does not publish official figures on the use of the death penalty, Amnesty International has reported that 153 people were executed during 2016, below the 2015 total of 158 people. This included the execution of a member of the Royal Family in October convicted of murder.

In December, 15 people were sentenced to death following conviction for treason, espionage and working for Iranian intelligence agencies.

The British government’s position on the death penalty is well understood by Saudi Arabia and we raise this at every level. We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in all countries. We assess that, since the principle of the death penalty is enshrined in Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law, abolition is unlikely in the near future, but we will focus our work on trying to limit the application of the death penalty and ensuring that, if it is applied, this is in line with international minimum standards.

We are especially concerned about the use of the death penalty in a way which is incompatible with Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which Saudi Arabia has not ratified) and other international instruments, including the Arab Charter. This includes imposing the death penalty for crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age at the time, and imposing the death penalty for crimes other than “the most serious”. In September 2016, the Foreign Secretary raised the cases of Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher, all of whom were convicted as juveniles, with the Saudi authorities. We do not expect these 3 men to be executed. In November, the Shura Council proposed a law setting the age of adulthood at 18 and providing that people convicted of crimes committed when under 18 years of age should not face the death penalty.

In October 2016, Saudi Arabia was re-elected for a second term on the UN Human Rights Council. The term will run from January 2017 to December 2019. The UK will use Saudi Arabia’s membership of the Council to encourage reform in Saudi Arabia.

We remain concerned by the case of Raif Badawi, a human rights activist and blogger who was sentenced on 7 May 2014 to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a 10-year travel ban, and a fine of 1,000,000 Saudi riyals (approximately £206,000). After receiving 50 lashes in January 2016, subsequent lashes were postponed on numerous occasions, apparently on grounds of ill health. We continue to discuss Mr Badawi’s case at the most senior levels in the government of Saudi Arabia. We strongly support the freedom of expression and association around the world. People must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely, challenge their governments peacefully, exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, and speak out against violations of human rights wherever they occur.

We continue to call for the full participation of women in Saudi Arabian society, including the removal of legal and cultural barriers, such as the guardianship system. In September, a petition signed by over 14,000 women calling for the abolition of the guardianship system was delivered to King Salman. In November, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi Royal family, but not a member of the government, called for ending the ban on women driving. We will continue to engage in dialogue on women’s rights with the Saudi Arabian government. We welcome the gradual reforms being made by the Saudi government through the expansion of education and employment opportunities, including the approval in November 2016 given by the Ministry of Health for women to work in chemists and opticians in shopping centres.

We have some concerns over the rights of third-party nationals working in the Kingdom, mainly because existing legislation is not always fully enforced. Where we have concerns over legislation or regulatory protection for migrant workers, we raise these with the authorities.

There has been no change in the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia. The British government strongly supports the right to freedom of religion or belief and our views are well known. But we recognise that the restrictions applied in Saudi Arabia reflect conservative values that are widely held in Saudi society. We believe that the key to increasing freedoms in this area is to focus on tolerance. We work with Saudi Arabia to identify areas where different faiths could work together and foster trust, and then slowly build up to engagement in more challenging areas.

We do not shy away from difficult conversations with the Saudi Arabian government about these issues. We continue to raise human rights concerns, both in public and in private. By engaging and working with Saudi Arabia we can ultimately bring about the changes we want to see.