‘If the opportunity arises for a frank discussion of human rights issues we’d certainly like him to take it’ - Allan Hogarth
With Prince Charles arriving in Saudi Arabia for a visit to the Gulf Kingdom followed by a visit to Qatar this week, Amnesty International has issued a new briefing (below) on key human rights concerns in the two countries.
Amnesty international UK’s Head of Policy and Government Affairs Allan Hogarth said:
“Prince Charles’s trip comes with all the trappings and courtesies of an official royal visit, but if the opportunity arises for a frank discussion of human rights issues we’d certainly like him to take it.
“Prince Charles should be under no illusions that outside of the palatial royal residences of Riyadh and Doha, the human rights situation in both countries is desperately bad.
“In Saudi Arabia, where any whisper of dissent can land you in prison and women are forbidden from getting behind the wheel of a car, Charles may find that numerous topics are extremely sensitive ones.
“In Qatar, the Prince will presumably want to discuss the country’s progress in constructing the World Cup stadia, but his hosts may frown on any mention of the appalling conditions in which many migrant workers have to toil away.
“When the red carpet for Prince Charles’ visit to the Gulf has been rolled up, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and Qatar will remain worryingly bad. The UK government should be following up with a full discussion on key human rights issues as soon as possible.”
Human rights briefing:
Amnesty’s concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia include:
Freedom of expression, association and assembly
The Saudi Arabia authorities do not tolerate public gatherings or demonstrations, and political dissent and freedom of expression is repressed. The media is severely constrained and those who express dissent face arrest and imprisonment, whether they are political critics, bloggers or academics. Last year, most of the country’s prominent human rights activists and all of the members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association were jailed.
Last year a website founder called Raif Badawi was jailed for seven years and sentenced to be flogged 600 times after he was convicted for criticising the Saudi Arabian authorities and for setting up a website where others posted criticism of the authorities. He was also convicted for insulting religious symbols in his tweets and Facebook updates where he criticised the country’s “religious police” (the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and prevention of Vice).
Crackdown under guise of ‘counter-terrorism’
Earlier this month a controversial new “Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing” came into force. Amongst other things, the law defines “terrorist crimes” as those acts that directly or indirectly aim at “disturbing the public order of the state”, “endangering its national unity”, “revoking the basic law of governance or any of its articles”, or “harming the reputation of the state or its standing”. The law also grants the Ministry of Interior powers to detain suspects for a year without charge or trial and deny their families access for nearly three months. A Specialised Criminal Court can also extend detentions indefinitely.
Court trials in Saudi Arabia fall far short of international fair trial standards. Defendants are often denied legal counsel and in many cases they and their families are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them. Court hearings are often held behind closed doors.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. The authorities apply the death penalty to a wide range of non-lethal crimes that are not accepted as “most serious crimes” under international standards; these include drug smuggling and armed robbery. It has also sentenced people to death for the supposed offences of adultery, “witchcraft”, “sorcery” and apostasy.
At least nine people, including four foreign nationals, have already been executed in 2014 - three for drug-related offences. For 2013 (up to November), Amnesty recorded the deaths of least 70 people, though the true figure may have been significantly higher. In 2012, at least 79 people were executed, while in 2011 the minimum figure was 82. These years saw a sharp increase on the number of executions in 2010, when 27 were known to have been executed (though again the true figure may have been higher).
Torture and other ill-treatment during detention and interrogation are common, and carried out without accountability or fear of punishment. Common methods include: punching, beating with sticks, suspension from ceilings or cell doors by the ankles or wrists, the application of electric shocks, and prolonged sleep deprivation. Courts frequently rely on “confessions” extracted by torture, duress or deception.
Women in Saudi Arabia face severe discrimination, both in law and in practice. They must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel, take paid work, engage in higher education or marry, and their evidence carries less weight in a court of law than that of men. Domestic violence against women is believed to be rife.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. Although there is no official law banning women drivers, a ministerial decree in 1990 formalised an existing customary ban and women who attempt to drive face arrests. In recent years, anti-driving ban activists - notably young women driving cars in symbolic protests - have been harassed, arrested and forced to sign pledges to end their campaigning. Their campaign websites have also been hacked.
Amnesty’s concerns about human rights in Qatar include:
Migrant workers’ rights
Qatar’s construction sector is rife with abuse, with workers employed on multi-million dollar projects - including those connected to the 2022 World Cup - suffering serious exploitation. In November, Amnesty published a 166-page report - The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup - documenting a range of abuses against migrant workers, including non-payment of wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, and shocking standards of accommodation.
In one case, the employees of a company delivering critical supplies to a construction project associated with the planned FIFA headquarters during the World Cup were subjected to serious labour abuses. Nepalese workers employed by the supplier said they were “treated like cattle”. Employees were working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, including during Qatar’s searingly hot summer months. Amnesty is calling on FIFA to work with the Qatari authorities and World Cup organisers as a matter of priority to prevent abuses.
Freedom of speech
The Qatari authorities maintain strict controls on freedom of expression, and criticism of the authorities can result in harsh prison sentences. In November 2011, Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami - also known as Mohamed Ibn Al-Dheeb - was arrested and charged with incitement to overthrow the ruling system and insulting the Amir of Qatar, in connection with a poem he had written which was considered critical of Qatar’s ruling family. Al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison in late 2012, with the sentence later reduced to 15 years by an appeals court.