Saudi siege of Awamiyah enters its third week

24 May 2017 – Today marks the beginning of the third week of the Saudi government’s ongoing military operation in the Eastern Province city of Awamiyah. In the course of the raid, Saudi authorities have blocked most of Awamiyah’s entry and exit points, effectively placing the area under siege. At least five people have been killed in the resulting clashes, which have also destroyed homes and infrastructure and resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of residents. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the Saudi government’s ongoing military actions in Awamiyah and calls on security forces to immediately end the siege.

Saudi security forces initially launched the raid into Awamiyah early on the morning of 10 May with the ostensible purpose of targeting and capturing wanted men accused of committing multiple crimes, including terror offenses. However, the demolition equipment accompanying the armored military vehicles suggest that the operation’s purpose is rather the destruction of Awamiyah’s 400-year-old Mosawara neighborhood. Saudi authorities have pursued the demolition of the historic area despite the calls on 5 April by UN human rights experts who say its destruction would cause irreparable harm to its residents’ cultural heritage while also resulting in many forced evictions. In light of the government’s recent actions, three UN Special Rapporteurs today issued another statement calling on the Saudi government immediately halt its efforts to demolish Mosawara.

The effects of the Saudi government’s raid on Awamiyah have been felt by many of the town’s nearly 30,000 residents. Several activists have posted pictures and video recordings showing damaged and destroyed cars, homes, and other infrastructure as a result of indiscriminate firing and rocket-propelled grenades. The European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) has reported that such damage has resulted in the forced eviction of at least 5,000 residents. Local sources have also reported lacking access to water and electricity, despite soaring temperatures in the area at this time of year. At least five people, including a two-year-old boy, have been killed as a result of the ongoing raid.

“The actions of Saudi security forces in Awamiyah exemplify the government’s disregard for its Shia populations’ heritage and wellbeing as well as its contempt for United Nations experts who try to protect human rights in the country,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “Media outlets and members of the international community must turn their eyes towards Awamiyah and tell the Saudi government that its actions are not going unseen. They must pressure Saudi authorities to withdraw from Awamiyah and commit to preserving its historic Mosawara neighborhood.”

This is not the first time that Saudi authorities have undertaken military operations in Awamiyah. Indeed, the city is the home of the now-executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and is known as a center for opposition activists. When Arab Spring protests swept through the region in 2011, residents of Awamiyah and nearby Qatif engaged in protests against the government and Saudi police responded with live ammunition, injuring 27 people. More recently, in 2015, authorities clashed with residents in Awamiyah in street battles that reportedly continued for several hours.

However, unlike past military operations in Awamiyah, the current raid is believed to be longer and more extensive. Activists and rights groups have suggested that security forces’ decision to erect barriers and control entry and exit into the area suggests that they intend to continue their raid until a large number of houses are demolished and until the individuals they claim to be targeting are either arrested or killed.

ADHRB continues to be extremely concerned at the Saudi security forces’ ongoing siege of Awamiyah. As such, ADHRB calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to immediately open the city’s entry and exit points to allow individuals, including emergency services, free access to the area. Additionally, we urge the government to respect the appeals of UN human rights experts as well as local and international activists and immediately halt its planned demolition of the neighborhood of Mosawara.