Nearly 100 days after King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud came to power in Saudi Arabia prospects for human rights progress in the Kingdom remain grim, said Amnesty International, as widespread violations continue unabated.
At home, scores of prisoners of conscience, imprisoned purely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly, have remained behind bars, and unfair trials of human rights activists accused of “terrorism” have continued. Within the new King’s first 100 days in power Saudi Arabia has led a military campaign in Yemen involving aerial bombardments in which hundreds of civilians have been killed, including in attacks that raise concerns that international humanitarian law may have been flouted.
“Any hopes that the arrival of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud might herald an improvement in human rights in Saudi Arabia have been crushed,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director of Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Instead of taking steps to improve Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has presided over an ongoing crackdown on government critics and peaceful activists, who continue to be intimidated, arbitrarily detained and treated as criminals. The first months of his reign have also been marked by an unprecedented wave of executions in a clear signal that the use of the death penalty is thriving in the Kingdom.”
Soon after King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud came to power Amnesty International wrote to him with a number of key human rights recommendations. In particular, the organization called for the release of dozens of imprisoned human rights defenders, reformists, dissidents and activists, including the blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, simply for exercising their right to free expression. It has received no response.
Across the Kingdom, the right to freedom of expression is severely restricted, forming a human rights organization is still banned, and peaceful gatherings of activists in public places also remain outlawed. The justice system is deeply flawed and the secretive procedures of the Specialized Criminal Court entrench the pattern of abusing the justice system to terrorize and punish peaceful activism.
“King Salman Abdul Aziz Al Saud must acknowledge that no true reform or positive human rights change will come about if the authorities do not listen to and embrace peaceful activists and reformists. Under his reign an environment must be established where freedom is not a dirty word and Saudi Arabia’s people are able to exercise their basic rights without fear, intimidation or punishment,” said Philip Luther.
The new King has made counter-terrorism a priority, launching a renewed bid to quash terrorism in response to the rising regional threat posed by the armed group calling itself Islamic State. However, Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism law is deeply problematic: it is vaguely worded, falls short of international standards and is also routinely abused.
“Saudi Arabia’s authorities must stop using counter-terrorism laws to prosecute peaceful human rights activists as ‘terrorists’. Failing to do so will only sow the seeds of further unrest within the Kingdom,” said Philip Luther.
To his credit, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz has taken some steps against incitement against religious minorities in the Kingdom, including against the Shi’a minority. These measures, however, have been inadequate and arbitrary. Saudi Arabian officials themselves, including the Governor of the Eastern Province, where the majority of the country’s Shi’a Muslim community reside, have used derogatory phrases to refer to the Shi’a. In the context of routine incitement against Shi’a Muslims on social media, particularly since the start of the Saudi Arabian military campaign in Yemen, this is particularly irresponsible and likely to exacerbate the discrimination and threats faced by the Shi’a minority.
A handful of activists have also been released including Souad al-Shammari, a women’s rights activist, and two women who were arrested for driving cars in December 2014. However, it is unclear whether they were forced to sign pledges in exchange for their release suggesting that the Saudi Arabian authorities are still resorting to age-old tactics of harassment and intimidation to silence all forms of dissent.