Saudi Arabia: human rights briefing

Ahead of a visit from the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to Saudi Arabia on 11 March as part of a nine-day tour of the region, Amnesty International released the following briefing. Amnesty’s concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia include.

Death penalty
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of execution in the world. It applies the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, including drug offences, apostasy, sorcery and witchcraft.

At least 17 people, including eight foreign nationals, have already been executed in 2013 - eight for drug-related offences. Around 80 people were executed in the country in 2012, following at least 82 people in 2011. These two years saw a large jump on the death toll in 2010, when 27 were known to have been executed (though the true figure may have been higher).

Seven men convicted of the armed robbery of jewellery shops are at immediate risk of execution. One of the men has been sentenced to be crucified after execution, meaning his dead body is likely to be tied to a pole in a public square to act as a supposed deterrent to others. Two of the group may have been juveniles at the time of the alleged crime (the execution of juvenile offenders is forbidden under international law). The seven were detained for over three years, before a trial which used “confessions” allegedly extracted under torture. The men were not allowed legal representation and were denied the right to appeal. Their executions were originally set for 5 March but were postponed after King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud reportedly intervened to review their case. Amnesty is appealing to King Abdullah and other Saudi authorities to cancel plans for the men’s executions entirely and to allow a fresh trial without recourse to the death penalty ( ).

Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker who was only 17 at the time of her alleged crime, was beheaded on 9 January in Dawadmi, a town west of the capital Riyadh. Amnesty and the Sri Lankan government had urged King Abdullah - who ratified her death sentence - to show clemency in her case, given Nafeek’s young age at the time of the alleged crime as well as concerns she received an unfair trial. Amnesty said the execution showed the country to be “woefully out of step” with international standards on the death penalty.

Freedom and speech and protests
Protests are banned in Saudi Arabia and criticism of the state is not tolerated. Those who publicly criticise the government are often held incommunicado without charge, sometimes in solitary confinement, and denied access to lawyers or the courts to challenge the legality of their detention. When the authorities do press charges, it is sometimes with vaguely-worded offences that cover conduct that should not be criminalised, such as “disobeying the ruler”.

In January six jailed reformists and ten others convicted with them were offered a royal “pardon” on the condition they sign pledges renouncing their public activism. Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry reportedly told the 16 that for the pardon to be carried out, they must first sign pledges to avoid repeating their offences or engaging in public activism, and to thank the King. Most of the group were held in pre-trial detention for up to three and half years before even being officially charged.

Torture is rife in Saudi Arabia, with interrogators aware they can commit their crimes without fear of punishment. Abuse is also encouraged by the ready acceptance by courts of “confessions” forced out of detainees using beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture and other ill-treatment. Torture is also frequently used to punish detainees for refusing to “repent” or to force them to make undertakings not to criticise the government. Methods of torture include: beatings with sticks, punching, suspension from the ceiling or cell doors by the ankles or wrists, the application of electric shocks to the body, and prolonged sleep deprivation.

Unfair trials
In Saudi Arabia the justice system and information about detainees, including prisoners of conscience, is generally shrouded in secrecy. Unfair trials are commonplace. Defendants are generally 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.

Women’s rights
Women 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. In recent years numerous campaigners who’ve challenged the country’s ban on women driving have been arrested and forced to sign pledges to desist.

In 2011 the King announced that from 2015 women will have the right to vote and run in municipal elections, the country’s only public poll. Last month 30 women were appointed by the King to the previously all-male Shura Council, the 150-member council that advises the government on legislation. This is the first time in Saudi Arabia that women have been able to hold a political office, though the council cannot make laws and its members are all appointees.

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