On Wednesday 10 May, Saudi security forces launched a raid into the Eastern Province city of Awamiyah. The raid is ongoing and has resulted in security forces shooting and killing at least one individual. While Saudi security forces have run military and security operations in Awamiyah several times since 2011, activists say this raid is significantly worse. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns this raid and Saudi Arabia’s military operations against its own populace.
The raid began at 3:40 AM with security forces closing many roads into and out of the city, essentially placing the city under siege. The operation remains ongoing and is being carried out by a large number of armored military vehicles accompanied by demolition vehicles whose purpose is the destruction of the historic Mosawara neighborhood, despite UN Rapporteur calls to halt the demolition.
Activists posted pictures and video recordings of recordings of “bulldozers on a street, cars on fire and walls covered in bullet-holes,” claiming that security forces were denying medics access to the location of the operations. According to the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), sources close to the Ministry of Interior indicate that the forces involved in the raid may include National Guard units in addition to special emergency forces, which are usually involved in these raids.
Saudi authorities say the narrow streets of the historic Mosawara neighborhood—which is slated for redevelopment—have become a hideout for Shia militants to carry out attacks on Saudi security forces. When a government team attempted to demolish the neighborhood to allegedly make way for the redevelopment project, the team came under gunfire from what it claims are Shia militants. In the ensuing clashes, ESOHR says that security forces killed Ali Abdul Aziz Abu Abdullah and injured around 15 people. Mira al-Jazeera, an online newspaper reflecting the views of the local Shia community, stated that at least two people were confirmed killed in the raid.
In addition to supporting the demolition of Mosawara, the government states that the operations were intended to capture wanted men accused of committing multiple crimes, including terror offenses. However, the authorities routinely apply terror charges to dissidents and activists in addition to members of violent extremist organizations. For example, Saudi officials have claimed that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a social justice activist, was a terrorist, although he vocally promoted non-violence. The authorities executed Sheikh Nimr in January 2016.
“The Saudi government’s attack on civilians in Mosawara is unacceptable and constitutes an assault on basic human dignity. The authorities claim they’re pursuing ‘terrorist’ suspects, but the kingdom’s deeply flawed definition of terrorism also includes dissidents and activists, which raises more questions about this violent raid than it answers,” says Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “The Saudi government must immediately halt these military operations and launch an independent investigation into the use of excessive force and any other human rights violations.”
This is not the first military action Saudi authorities have undertaken in Awamiyah and the neighboring town of Qatif. Awamiyah, which was the home of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, is known as a center for opposition. When the Arab Spring swept through the region, residents of Qatif and Awamiyah protested against the government. Police met the demonstrators with live ammunition that injured 24 men and three women. In 2015, authorities clashed with residents in Awamiyah and street battles reportedly continued for several hours. One policeman was killed and over a dozen residents were wounded. Officials stated four militants were arrested in a security operation aimed at dealing with “terrorist elements” in Awamiyah.
However, unlike past military operations in Awamiyah, the current raid is believed to be longer and more extensive. At approximately 4:00 PM, nearly 12 hours after the raid started, ESOHR reported that the security forces closed additional entrances to the city with barricades. Some residents see this as an indication that authorities intend to continue their raid until they demolish a large number of houses and arrest or kill the targeted individuals.
ADHRB strongly condemns this operation and Saudi Arabia’s use of excessive military force against its own populace. The government must respect the rights of its citizens, including their right to enjoy Mosawara’s cultural landmarks and their right to life. ADHRB calls on Saudi Arabia to immediately halt the operation.