Challenging the Red Lines - Stories of Rights Activists in Saudi Arabia
Civil society and human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are struggling for greater popular political participation, judicial reform, and an end to discrimination against women and minorities. Saudi authorities have responded by cracking down on rights defenders, quashing calls for change, and preventing the development of an opposition movement.
This report presents the stories of 11 prominent Saudi social and political rights activists, and their struggle to resist government efforts to silence them. Saudi Arabia’s sweeping campaign against human rights and civil society activists has included threats, intimidation, investigations, prosecutions, and detentions. The 11 individuals profiled in this report demonstrate some of the struggles and successes of Saudi Arabia’s small but growing activist community.
Several of the activists profiled in this report used social media and online forums to initiate campaigns and build networks, which have been a major feature of rights activism in Saudi Arabia since 2009. Tens of thousands of Saudi citizens have participated in online campaigns, such as a campaign to free Samar Badawi, a woman jailed for “parental disobedience” according to a judge’s interpretation of Islamic law, and the “Women2Drive” initiative, an advocacy campaign that encourages Saudi women to drive in defiance of the government ban on women driving. A number of recently founded, mostly Internet-based, nongovernmental human rights organizations regularly issue statements on individual cases of human rights abuses. Despite the authorities’ efforts to block online content, Saudis – at least 49 percent of whom have Internet access – have used Internet forums to bypass heavily censored state media.
The Arab uprisings in 2011 encouraged activists to move beyond online campaigning and organize small demonstrations and sit-ins in the streets. In Riyadh and Buraydah, families of detainees held for years without charge began holding demonstrations outside Ministry of Interior buildings and detention facilities, calling on authorities to either release or try their family members. In the eastern cities of Qatif and Awammiyah, demonstrators called for greater religious freedoms and an end to institutionalized discrimination against the country’s Shia minority. Activists across the country launched campaigns for gender equality, inviting women to defy discriminatory practices imposed by Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Political and religious figures circulated petitions that requested King Abdullah to implement judicial reforms and release political detainees.
The Saudi government has harassed, intimidated, and attempted to silence human rights and civil society activists for many years, but redoubled its efforts since early 2011, including travel bans, termination of employment, smear campaigns, as well as detentions and prosecution. The Saudi Ministry of Interior continues to arrest and hold independent civil society activists for months without charge.
Saudi police and judicial authorities have harassed and jailed Saudi rights activists, like Samar Badawi, who challenged restrictive aspects of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, under which girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.
Authorities have refused to license new human rights organizations and instead have sentenced their founders to lengthy prison terms. Saudi judicial authorities have tried and convicted prominent activists, including Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammed al-Qahtani, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, and Mikhlif al-Shammari, on account of their peaceful pro-reform activism, charging them with arbitrary “crimes” that violate their right to free expression and association such as “setting up an unlicensed organization”, “breaking allegiance with the ruler”, and “attempting to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”
Jeddah lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair and Eastern Province activist Fadhil al-Manasif remain on trial on charges including “insulting the judiciary,” “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom,” and “inciting public opinion against the state.”
Saudi Arabia does not allow most political or human rights associations to register or formally operate. The only exception is the National Human Rights Society, established in 2004, which receives funding from the estate of the late King Fahd. Saudi officials have refused to license independent human rights organizations such as the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), the Adala Center for Human Rights, the Union for Human Rights, and Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and have blocked their websites.
Authorities have blocked web pages calling for reforms, including, for example, the Eastern Province-based Rasid News Website since 2003, the website of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia since 2008, and hundreds of pages originating from outside the kingdom.
The Ministry of Interior has maintained its long-standing ban on all public protests and sit-ins, including marches and protests in Qatif and Awammiyah in 2011 and small sit-ins by family members of security detainees in Buraydah and Riyadh in 2011 and 2012. In addition, the Ministry of Interior has pursued criminal prosecutions against rights activists for alleged “crimes” based solely on the peaceful practice of their right to free expression and association, branding them criminals and even “terrorists.” One example of such prosecutions is the case of the so-called Jeddah reformers, a group of 16 men arrested in February 2007 for allegedly gathering funds for terrorism. The men are well-known for their public stances demanding human rights and political reform in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, leaving judges free to sentence activists based on their own interpretations of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, the two agreed-upon sources of Islamic Sharia law. Defendants accused of political offenses are often sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), set up to try terrorism-related cases, which routinely denies defendants the most basic fair trial guarantees, including the right to a lawyer, and passes sentences in closed proceedings. Authorities continue to hold prominent Saudi rights activists in prolonged incommunicado detention, completely cut off from their families and the outside world. Prison officials held activists Sulaiman al-Rashoodi and Fadhil al-Manasif in incommunicado detention for extended periods, after Saudi police arrested them for their peaceful rights activism, eventually charging both with “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” among other charges.
In addition to trials, the Ministry of Interior regularly bans activists from foreign travel for extended periods and without specifying reasons for the ban or giving notification. Many activists, such as Waleed Abu al-Khair, discovered they were banned from travel only at the airport as they attempted to exit Saudi Arabia. Under article six of Saudi Arabia’s travel documents law, authorities can only impose a travel ban via a judicial ruling or by decision of the minister of interior. The ban can only be imposed for specified reasons that are related to security for a specific period. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 2009, holds that no one may be arbitrarily or unlawfully prevented from leaving any country, including his own.
Clerics in Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment, which exercises broad control over many governmental agencies including the judiciary, continue to issue fatwas (religious edicts) against rights activists and social critics, calling for their execution as apostates. Repressive government policies, including the ban on protests, are often endorsed by the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, the highest Saudi state body for the interpretation of Islamic law.
In spite of repression by the state and the religious establishment, Saudi activists continue to challenge the authorities, risking their freedom and livelihoods in order push for genuine reform and respect for human rights.
Saudi Arabia should immediately halt its ongoing crackdown on peaceful activists and release all detainees held on charges and convictions stemming entirely from their peaceful exercise of their rights to free expression, association, and belief. Authorities should also enact major judicial reforms such as:
issuing a written penal code that is consistent with human rights standards and does not criminalize freedom of expression and association;
issuing an associations law that allows civil society organizations to form and operate without undue government interference;
abolishing the male guardianship system and all laws and regulations stemming from it;
enacting legislation that prohibits and gives effective remedies against discrimination of religious minorities and women; and;
abolishing all laws and regulations that disproportionately interfere with free expression, including on electronic networks.
The other countries, particularly major allies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European Union member states, should publically call on Saudi authorities to stop all arrests and trials of peaceful activists and release of all prisoners held on charges relating to their peaceful activism. The international community should also press Saudi Arabia to sign and ratify major international human rights legislation such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).