Reprisal Against Human Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia

The Price of Participating at the Human Rights Council is too exorbitant

Human right defenders have suffered greatly from reprisals due to their activism and involvement with international human rights organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), and the Human Rights Council (HRC), among others . ADHRB has, and continues to monitor the situation in Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Gulf.

Since May 2018, Saudi Arabia has implemented travel bans, engaged in incommunicado detention, and participated in other forms of reprisals as a method for preventing human right defenders (HRDs) from participating in international human right sessions, or engaging with groups such as the UN.

ADHRB’s work surrounding reprisals in Saudi Arabia has focused on Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) and the systematic reprisals that they face because of their activism. The condition of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia country has always been precarious due to the ingrained patriarchy in which the society is based. Women, in fact, are considered of less value because of their sex thus affecting the attitude in which Saudi society has viewed women when they speak out about prominent and pressuring issues. These issues include fundamental restrictions on woman’s’ freedom, including freedom of expression and association, and freedom of movement. A clear example is the guardianship system, implemented by the Saudi government, which requires women to have their male guardian’s permission before undertaking basic activities such as traveling, seeking employment, or health care access. Another prominent example, and one that highlights government reprisal is the May 2018 crackdown of activists from Saudi Arabian authorities who targeted WHRDs who courageously and peacefully advocated for the right of women to drive, for an end of the male guardianship system, and for overall justice and equality of genders in the Saudi society.

Included in the arrests that stemmed from the May 2018 were prominent woman human right defenders such as Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada, all of whom remain either imprisoned, face trails, or have had their right to travel revoked. Amnesty International has repeatedly reported how the Saudi authorities have subjected WHRDs to torture including electric shocks, flogging, sexual assault.  Moreover, there is no recourse, as most of these individuals have had their right to due process denied. Reprisals are against women whose only “crime” was of advocating for the most basic rights that women throughout the western world enjoy freely. The case of Samar Badawi highlights these reprisals.  Samar, who has been fighting for women’s rights  and the abolishment of the male guardianship system since 2010, has faced travel bans and arrest due to her engagement with the UN Human Rights Council. Samar was the last WHRDs to be able to travel from Saudi Arabia and attend the HRC session.

On 10 October 2018, several Special Procedure mandate holders issued an urgent appeal with renewed concerns about the arbitrary detention and degrading treatment of women rights defenders Ms Samar Badawi and Ms Loujain Al-Hathloul who had engaged with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). On several occasions, between May and November 2018, the CEDAW Chair and Focal Point on Reprisals sent communication letters to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who responded and provided information on Ms Al- Hathloul. On 5 April 2019, the Government of Saudi Arabia submitted additional information, stating that Al-Hathloul had committed offences related to national security and cybercrimes and was detained in the General Directorate of Investigation (Al- Mabahith) with rights to medical treatment, legal representation, communications and visits. The Government stated that the investigation into her case has been conducted and concluded. On 9 April 2019, the Assistant Secretary-General addressed allegations of reprisals to the Government in writing.

 Another case of reprisal concerns the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA). Created in 2009 to address the deteriorating human rights situation and advocate for constitutional reforms in Saudi Arabia, the ACPRA was banned 4 years after its creation. By 2016, all of its 11 members had been prosecuted because of their activism and cooperation with the UN. ACPRA members were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 15 years and were subjected to travel bans by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Among the members of ACPRA were Essa AlHamid, Dr Abdulrahman Al-Hamid, and Dr Abdullah Al-Hamid, who died on April 24, 2020 after complications of the medical negligence he was forced to endure while in prison.

Another victim of his activism is Waleed Abu al-Khair, a lawyer and prisoner of conscience who was sentenced to 15-year prison, a 15-year travel ban, a fine of approximately US $53,000 and 1000 lashes on charges related to his peaceful human rights activities. Waleed was sentenced on charge“striving to overthrow the state and the authority of the King”; “criticising and insulting the judiciary”; “assembling international organisations against the Kingdom”; “creating and supervising an unlicensed organisation, and contributing to the establishment of another”; and, “preparing and storing information that will affect public security”.

 In 2018, at the Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia. In this document, ADHRB highlighted that human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia were still prosecuted under accusations of “terrorism”. Most HRDs in the country were brought to court for their non-violent activism and convicted under counter-terrorism laws after grossly unjust trials. ADHRB and other organizations have proposed that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia abolish all laws and policies that limit freedoms and activities; cease repressing non-violent activists under the pretext of counter-terrorism; and release all HRDs and leaders of civil society organizations who have been arrested for fulfilling their freedom of expression promptly and unconditionally and moreover  study their cases to avoid further harassment.

More recently, in June 2019, over 39 other NGOs, signed onto a joint letter to 48 missions and the EU mission in Geneva regarding human rights abuses committed by Saudi Arabia. The letter asked States to present a resolution at the UN Council in order to monitor human rights abuse in the Kingdom. This letter called on the Saudi government to release women human rights defenders, drop all charges against them, and to lift travel bans against their family members.

HRDs in Saudi Arabia have been and will continue to be subjected to reprisals for their human rights activism if the international community does not intervene. It is unacceptable that a former member of the UN HRC continues to obstruct the advancement and protection of human rights. The international community has a moral duty to raise its voice on behalf of all those in Saudi Arabia who cannot do so, particularly, on behalf of all civil society actors who would like to engage with the UN HRC yet are prohibited from doing so. States should pressure the Saudi Arabian government to immediately and unconditionally release all HRD, allow independent civil society actors to carry out their work in promoting human rights, and ensure, without reservation, that all HRD in Saudi Arabia can carry out their human rights activities without fear of reprisals.