US State Department Releases its 2017 Saudi Arabia Human Rights Report

On Friday 20 April, the United States (US) Department of State (DoS) released its 2017 annual human rights country report for Saudi Arabia. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) generally welcomes the report, yet remains concerned over several exceptions. The report rightly addresses the numerous human rights abuses perpetrated by the Saudi government within the past year. While ADHRB finds the report to be well-rounded and largely in-line with ADHRB’s reporting and documentation, we urge the State Department to remain cognizant of the structural nature of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and to work with the kingdom to address these.

In the report, the State Department highlights numerous human rights issues and violations, including “unlawful killings, executions for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; political prisoners; and arbitrary interference with privacy.” The report also indicates the structural nature of many rights abuses, noting that the kingdom’s broad prohibition against fundamental freedoms like freedom of expression “including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion.” The report also highlighted citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections and the continued prevalence of violence and state-sanctioned gender discrimination against women.

Importantly, the report remains critical of Saudi Arabia’s actions on gender reform. While authorities have publicly announced women’s rights reforms, these developments have not addressed the fundamental, structural restrictions stemming from the continued prevalence of the male guardianship system. In this way, while acknowledging new women’s rights initiatives and women’s participation in the 2015 municipal elections, DoS highlighted continued violence and officially sanctioned discrimination against women. The report mentioned key cases of these abuses, including Dina Ali Lasloom and Maryam al-Otaibi.

In addition to women’s rights, the report notes systematic and widespread abuses stemming from the kingdom’s judicial system, in particular authorities’ use of the overly broad counter-terror law, and restrictive civil society, cybercrime, and press and publication laws. The government uses these laws to restrict free expression, free assembly, free association, and to target activists and human rights defenders. In addition to restricting fundamental freedoms, DoS highlights the frequent allegations of torture, concerns over lack of fair and transparent trials in which defendants have access to legal counsel and are able to effectively communicate with their lawyers. The cumulative effect of these restrictions, prohibitions, and barriers is a judicial system that is ill-equipped to deliver justice to peaceful activists, migrants, and dissidents.

While the report emphasized and highlighted these problems, it underemphasized human rights concerns in several other important areas. For example, the report alleges, “there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.” In actuality, three Saudi princes living in Europe and who are critical of the government have been kidnapped and forcibly disappeared in recent years. Between September 2015 and February 2016, Prince Sultan bin Turki, Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, and Prince Turki bin Bandar were all abducted and disappeared. As of writing, there is still no word on their whereabouts or their conditions, though it is likely they are in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Human Rights Watch has reported that Dina Ali Lasloom’s whereabouts remain unknown at the end of the 2017 after she was forcibly repatriated to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines on her way to Australia to seek asylum.

The report further erred in regards to juvenile imprisonment, stating that juveniles “…were held in separate facilities from adults, according to available information.” However, there is at least one case in 2017 where authorities transferred a minor from a juvenile prison to an adult facility. Murtaja Algariras was transferred from Dar al-Mulahaza, the juvenile detention center in Dammam to the General Directorate of Investigations (GDI) prison in al-Dammam. This case is particularly concerning because the GDI is notorious for torturing prisoners and coercing confessions.

The State Department’s 2017 report is stronger than its 2016 report, but it faces some of the same problems, namely that it remains, broadly speaking, not critical enough of the kingdom and government’s practices. Several problematic sections from the 2016 report have been carried over to the 2017 report including statements like, “incommunicado detention was sometimes a problem. Authorities reportedly did not always respect a detainees’ right to contact family members following detention.” In contrast, ADHRB has found incommunicado detention to be a frequent and systemic issue that coincides with the torture of detainees, rather than something that is “sometimes a problem.”

“ADHRB welcomes the Department of State’s emphasis on Saudi Arabia’s numerous human rights violations, in particular its comprehensive nature. The focus on illuminating the structural nature of abuses and violations sends an important signal that reform will require more than a flashy public relations campaign. However, while this report is an improvement over past iterations, it continues to underreport certain abuses, and remains reluctant to strongly criticize the Saudi government,” says Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “As a close ally to the Saudi government, the US has extensive leverage to press Saudi Arabia to protect and promote human rights. In addition, US policy makers and members of the Administration must also work with international allies to ensure that Saudi Arabia is held accountable for abuses and implements a serious reform agenda.”

ADHRB welcomes the State Department’s report despite reservations over its failure to adequately address the full range of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. However, the report is an improvement over the Department’s 2016 human rights report, with State highlighting the wide range of violations in detail and noting the wide disconnect between legislation and practice. Where the 2016 report was not critical enough of the Saudi government, the 2017 report makes it clear that the government is responsible for a wide range of abuses. ADHRB urges the US to follow up on the State Department’s report to stress human rights concerns both publicly and privately. We further call on the US to leverage its influence to affect positive change in Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.