WORLD REPORT 1999 - Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Developments
The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, continued to violate a broad array of civil and political rights, allowing no criticism of the government, no political parties, nor any other potential challenges to its system of government. Arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture, and corporal and capital punishment remained the norm in both political and common criminal cases, with at least twenty-two executions and three judicial amputations of the hand carried out by mid-October. Human rights abuses were facilitated by the absence of an independent judiciary and the lack of public scrutiny by an elected representative body or a free press.

Women continued to face institutionalized discrimination affecting their freedom of movement and association and their right to equality in employment and education. Muslim religious practices deemed heterodox by government-appointed Islamic scholars and all non-Muslim religious practices were banned and subject to criminal prosecution. In July the Philippines embassy in Riyadh reported that twelve Filipino nationals who had been detained in early June on charges of proselytizing and handing out bibles were deported to the Philippines. A Dutch citizen arrested at the same time was also deported.

Labor laws banned the right to organize and bargain collectively and gave employers control over foreign workers’ freedom of movement. Many foreign workers were denied promised wages and benefits and suffered under oppressive labor conditions. Labor protections did not extend to domestic workers, and labor courts rarely enforced the few protections provided by law when workers sought to have the terms of their contracts honored or pursued similar claims. In July the Council of Ministers issued a decision placing new limits on foreigners holding public sector jobs and prohibiting foreign workers with less than ten years in Saudi Arabia from “acquiring new expertise.” The restrictions followed a campaign to limit the number of foreign workers begun in July 1997, and in August the government announced that over 750,000 foreign workers had been expelled for violating residency regulations since October 1997.

The Saudi government has not disseminated a penal code or code of criminal procedure, and only a limited number of laws existed in published form. The Saudi monarchy enjoyed broad powers, enabling the king to appoint and dismiss judges and to create special courts, undermining judicial independence. In addition, principles of Islamic law were subject to reinterpretation by government-appointed religious leaders. Judges enjoyed broad discretion in defining criminal offenses and setting punishments, which included severe floggings, amputations, and beheading, and in determining which witnesses would be called to testify. These factors encouraged arbitrariness in sentencing and allowed great scope for manipulation of the justice system by well-connected interested parties.

Under the Principles of Arrest, Temporary Confinement, and Preventative Detention 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 minister of interior ordered their release or trial. Detainees had no right to legal counsel, to examine witnesses, or to call witnesses in their own defense. Saudi law also allowed conviction on the basis of uncorroborated confessions. In cases of “crimes involving national security,” the minister of interior had virtually unlimited authority over suspects in crimes against state security, which were defined so broadly as to encompass nonviolent opposition to the government.

Foreigners were particularly vulnerable to manipulation of the judicial system, as in the case of Farzana Kausar and her three small children, all Pakistani nationals, who were detained for almost ten months, apparently in an attempt to force her husband to return to Saudi Arabia. Kausar’s husband, Mohamed Ijaz Ahmad, also a Pakistani national, was employed as office manager for Said Ayas, the business manager of Prince Mohammad bin Fahd bin ‘Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud, son of King Fahd and governor of the Eastern Province. Both Ahmad and Ayas were wanted by Prince Mohammad in connection with a business dispute, and Ayas had been placed under house arrest in June 1997 when he returned to Saudi Arabia at the prince’s request. After Ahmad went to Pakistan in September to visit an ill parent, he learned from neighbors that his wife and children were detained by General Investigations officers on October 8, 1997, a day before they were to join Ahmad. In March the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan reportedly sought the aid of Pakistan’s minister of interior in returning Ahmad to Saudi Arabia, and claimed that Kausar remained in Saudi Arabia because she was unwilling to travel without her husband. Ahmad fled Pakistan and applied for asylum in Britain, where he indicated he would testify on Ayas’ behalf in a London court case brought by the prince. In response to the court’s request for clarification of Kausar’s status, on July 14 the prince’s lawyers for the first time submitted affidavits claiming that Kausar had been charged with criminal offenses on February 28. They did not explain why the Saudi ambassador’s March appeal to Pakistan made no mention of charges, or why Kausar and her children were detained more than four months before charges were filed. The family was allowed to leave Saudi Arabia on July 27, the day before a scheduled court judgment in the legal dispute, on the condition that Kausar return to Saudi Arabia for a September 5 hearing. As of early October Kausar remained in Pakistan, in hiding, after the government of Pakistan banned her from traveling abroad on August 24.

The sentences of British nurses Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan were commuted and they were released on May 20 and allowed to return to the United Kingdom. The two had been convicted of the December 1996 murder of an Australian nurse, apparently solely on the basis of coerced confessions the two later withdrew. McLauchlan’s additional sentence of 500 lashes was not carried out.

The Shi‘a community in Saudi Arabia, which comprised about 10 percent of the population, faced widespread government discrimination, including unequal access to social services, education, and government jobs, especially those in the national security sector. The government rarely permitted private construction of Shi‘a mosques or community centers, and even books on Shi‘ism were banned.

Shi‘a sources reported that the family of Mohammad al-Hayek, twenty-nine, of Qatif, was notified on June 21 that their son had died in prison and was buried in Riyadh, but the authorities declined to say when or how he died. Al-Hayek’s body was not returned to his family, causing speculation that he may have been tortured.

The government owned all domestic radio and television stations, and allowed the domestic privately-owned media no margin to criticize government policies. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the domestic media was subject to close supervision by the minister of information, who approved the hiring of editors and could dismiss them at will. Foreign publications were often censored or banned, and several important foreign-based print and broadcasting media were owned by members of the Saudi royal family or their associates, including United Press International, al-Hayat, a major daily in the Middle East, and MBC, a London-based satellite television network. Private satellite dishes were outlawed, but unofficially tolerated, and local Internet service, scheduled to begin in December 1998 or January 1999, was also subject to extensive censorship.In anticipation of the new service, Council of Ministers Decision 163 required parties using the Internet to refrain from “any activities violating the social, cultural, political, media, economic, and religious values of the Kingdom,” and prohibited sending or receiving coded information without prior authorization.

Defending Human Rights
Saudi controls on information and its harsh suppression of freedom of expression and association prevented any human rights organizations from operating in Saudi Arabia. Government monitoring of telephone and mail communications made Saudis reluctant to comment on human rights conditions there, and even those who lived abroad often requested anonymity when providing human rights information, so as to avoid reprisals against themselves or their families. No international human rights organization has received authorization to conduct a mission to Saudi Arabia for several years. Foreign journalists needing visas to enter Saudi Arabia were often refused access.

United Nations
Saudi Arabia was due to submit its initial reports on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, in the course of 1998. In April Saudi Arabia reportedly cited its ratification of these conventions, in 1996 and 1997, to successfully lobby for its removal from the Commission on Human Rights’ confidential “1503" review procedure. Saudi Arabia was also one of fifty-one countries that criticized the Commission on Human Rights’ April 3 resolution “calling upon all states that still maintain the death establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty.”

European Union
The European Parliament, in its February 19 Resolution on the 54th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, called on the Council of the European Union to “support initiatives to combat the ill-treatment of detainees.” The resolution noted that abuse of detainees “has recently been the subject of reports, including in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Kenya.”

United Kingdom
Saudi Arabia remained a major United Kingdom trading partner and market for arms exports, and the U.K. continued to subordinate human rights concerns to its military and commercial interests in the kingdom. In January the Parliamentary Human Rights Group and Redress Trust issued a joint report on torture in Saudi Arabia which charged the U.K. had “consistently failed to protect and assist its nationals adequately when they become victims of torture in Saudi Arabia and may even have acquiesced in providing the regime with the instruments it uses to commit torture.” Responding to questions in Parliament’s House of Lords on the report, Minister Baroness Symons explained the government’s position, saying the government “must consider the most effective way in which to argue human rights issues where there are different cultures and different religious practices and observation, and where the attitudes towards human rights are very different from our own.”

During his first major state visit to Britain, in September Crown Prince Abdullah met with Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and Prime Minister Blair, and received the Insignia of an Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Civil Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.

United States
Saudi Arabia provided a major market for U.S. arms and civilian goods, a base for over 5,000 U.S. troops and for U.S. planes patrolling the “no-fly zone” in southern Iraq, and was a major force in the oil industry. In 1997 U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia reached U.S.$8.5 billion, while Saudi petroleum exports to the U.S. were more than U.S. $10 billion. U.S. direct investment in Saudi Arabia was estimated at more than U.S. $8 billion. The increasingly close strategic partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia was not, however, accompanied by public candor in assessing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. For example, U.S. concern over religious freedom in Saudi Arabia appeared limited to gaining guarantees of American citizens’ right to private non-Muslim religious practice. Assessing Saudi Arabia’s performance on religious freedom during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck testified that “The Secretary of State, Ambassador Wyche Fowler, and other United States officials have encouraged the Saudi Government at the highest levels to make further progress on religious freedom,” and noted “as a positive development that Defense Minister Sultan stated publicly last fall that the Saudi Government does not prohibit non-Muslim worship in the home.” Human rights concerns were not on the announced agenda during Crown Prince Abdullah’s first state visit to the U.S. in September, when he met with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Secretary of State Albright, and several other high-ranking U.S. officials.

The U.S.-Saudi cooperation continued in the investigation of the 1996 al-Khobar bombing that killed nineteen U.S. military personnel in June 1996. Saudi national Hani ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Sayegh, who had been brought to the U.S. from Canada in connection with that case, remained in federal custody in Atlanta, pending execution of an order for his removal from the U.S. As of late September a federal district court had still not set a date to hear oral arguments on al-Sayegh’s habeas corpus appeal filed in January. According to al-Sayegh’s lawyer, the appeal challenged al-Sayegh’s detention and the removal order on the grounds that it was based on secret evidence, and al-Sayegh was never given a chance to present his case before a judge. The Justice Department also did not rule out the extraditing al-Sayegh to Saudi Arabia, despite U.S. obligations under the Convention against Torture, which prohibits returning someone to a country where that person would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment.