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Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, 2019: the Cancer of Tyranny

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At ESOHR, we believe that 2019 was the worst year in recent decades of Saudi history. This is not to downplay the outrages that occurred in previous years, but when civil society and independent intellectuals are left without an influence on the human rights situation in the country, while only one actor controls the entire landscape in keeping with his authoritarian instincts, this is the inevitable result: a downward trend that shows no signs of arrest.

Ultimately, the human rights situation in a healthy country is shaped by the interplay of all actors involved in the public sphere. Actors on the left and on the right and in between, as well as political parties, the independent media, the independent judiciary, civil society and the street all play a part in creating the human rights situation. Further, they all interact with the international public sphere, with international institutions, and with the lines and recommendations so formulated. All these forces and actors act together to produce the outlines and features of the human rights situation in participatory countries.

By complete contrast, since 2015 in particular, Saudi Arabia has seen the destruction, crushing and extirpation of these various forces. Civil society has been especially decimated, and there are now almost no independent civil associations or even individuals operating within the country. Furthermore, some laws have been amended and some changes have been made so that judicial bodies and executive agencies are now linked directly to the king, thereby closing off any possibility of their independence. Persecution campaigns have diversified to include arbitrary killings or intimidating arrests, affecting many groups that it was impossible to imagine being targeted before. Meanwhile, on the international level, Saudi Arabia has disregarded international institutions and continued its attempts to deceive and evade its obligations. It has become clear that Saudi Arabia is being given cover by its political allies in both the US and Europe, which benefit from the economic revenue. It appears that Saudi Arabia relies on the cover provided by these alliances, and it is emboldened in its viciousness by this cover. Thanks to these allies, who do not prioritize serious promotion of human rights, Saudi Arabia is able to engage in violations and crimes against humanity, while some of these countries even participate in and drive such abuses, as for example in the US support for the war in Yemen.

All of the above has made the country like a body without an immune system; the country has let the cancer of authoritarianism penetrate its limbs and cells, so that Saudi Arabia has become a sick body under the pressure of violated rights. For this reason, every year that the country goes without a role for independent actors to contribute to the human rights situation, while the king and his son enjoy unilateral power, will be worse than the year before, as a natural result to the downward trend.

Thus, it has become clear that the Saudi government has a strong desire to eliminate all domestic forces and voices that advocate for human rights, and it has become customary to criminalize every voice making a demand or a criticism. It has been observed that this reign has an elevated sensitivity to criticism, which explains the unprecedented targeting of civilian activists based abroad, a practice which did not exist to the same extent under previous reigns.

2019 drew to a close without any signs of improvement in 2020. Indeed, it concluded with a farcical scene in a ruling where senior officials responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul were acquitted, in a ruling that revealed still further disdain for human rights.


Note from the Editor

What follows is a side of the violations that occurred in 2019. This report does not attempt to summarize the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia in its entirety; such a report would require significantly more pages. Rather, it seeks to provide an update-in-part on that which occurred only in 2019.


Human Rights Violations

1)      Human rights advocates and activists

Throughout 2019, the Saudi government tightened its grip on human rights activists, both male and female, through prosecutions, arrests, and trials. However, what is truly remarkable is how the scope of violations expanded to reach outside Saudi Arabia, as activists living abroad now found themselves targeted using various methods.

In July 2019, the Saudi government opened a new case with new charges against human rights advocate Mohammed al-Otaibi, including evading trial, travelling to Qatar, communicating with foreign entities, and interfering in public affairs. This came after he had been sentenced to 14 years in prison at the first trial, where his fellow human rights advocate, Abdullah Al-Atawi, was also convicted of charges, including participating in the formation of the Union Human Rights organization. The targeting of al-Otaibi came three months after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued its opinion on his case, calling for his release and stressing that his arrest proves that arbitrary arrest is a systematic and widespread practice in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Otaibi was not the only individual who was tried a second time after a prior sentence was issued. Saudi Arabia also opened a new case against human rights advocate Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, resulting in a second judgment against him in August 2019, on charges including giving sermons, travelling abroad knowing that he was banned from doing so and had a court date, and supporting Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr. The verdict increases the length of Sheikh Al-Habib’s detention to 12 years, despite all the violations involved in his case, which have been confirmed in a legal analysis issued by international and Sharia law expert Professor Mohammad Fadil.

The crackdown has not excluded female human rights advocates. The Saudi government has continued to detain some of them for nearly a year and a half without yet issuing any judgments against them. Among them are Loujain al-Hathloul, Nouf Abdulaziz, Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi.

In addition to the Saudi government’s tightening grip on human rights advocates at home, violations against activists living abroad have also increased. On May 5, 2019, a PhD student in constitutional law, Hamza al-Kanani, was targeted three days after he declared support for victims of repression in the country. Members of the Saudi Mabahith raided his family’s home in the governorate of Mecca, seized his personal belongings, interrogated his brothers and cousins several times, and barred several of his family members from travelling.

August 2019 marked almost one year since five children and their mother were barred from travelling to see their father, activist Ali Hashem Al-Hajji, who lives abroad. The al-Hajji family was unexpectedly stopped at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam as they were travelling from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia for a short visit with relatives. The government confiscated their passports, forced Al-Hajji’s wife to sign documents of unknown content, and interrogated his family at the airport for three hours. Following this, they were summoned by the General Investigation Directorate (Mabahith) in Dammam and Al-Ahsa on a series of occasions.

September 2019 marks the second year since Saudi Arabia decided to ban the family of activist Sheikh Dr. Saeed Al-Ghamdi from travelling abroad, forcing them to remain in the country. Al-Ghamdi’s family of 11 children, ages 3 to 11, along with their mothers, has been prohibited from travelling since the September 2017 campaign of arrests launched by Saudi Arabia against academics, clerics and activists. They were prevented from travelling while they were en route to visit their father.


2)      Torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment

Saudi Arabia acceded to the Convention against Torture in 1997, but this has not resulted in any commitment to stop or combat torture. Rather, Saudi Arabia continues to exploit its accession to the Convention by praising itself in the media and internationally. Likewise, before the Human Rights Council and in its responses to the letters of UN special rapporteurs, it continues to deny practising any psychological or physical torture, despite the many complaints of torture lodged by victims with Saudi courts.

The torture of female human rights advocates has spread widely at the local and global levels, especially in the last quarter of 2018 through the end of 2019. Nevertheless, no one has been held accountable despite the demands of victims and their families. This proves that there is no fair and independent judicial system in Saudi Arabia that can hold accountable those responsible for torture crimes. The Presidency of State Security—which reports directly to King Salman—oversees torture, which indicates that the king and his son are directly connected to the expanding crimes of torture in the country. In the absence of an independent public prosecution apparatus that can initiate prosecution of torture crimes and given the absolute control wielded by the king and his son, it is thus impossible to hold torturers accountable domestically.

In the context of increased political executions, particularly since 2016, ESOHR has found in many cases that torture has become one of the stages preceding the issuing of unfair rulings, including political executions, such as the April 2019 massacre in which 37 prisoners were killed. Among them were individuals who were subjected to various types of torture in order to extract confessions that were subsequently used at trial. In no case did a judge heed these numerous complaints of torture.

Citizen Abbas al-Hassan, a victim of the April massacre, was tortured during a months-long investigation, and Saudi Arabia ignored the requests of special rapporteurs at the Human Rights Council to investigate his allegations of torture. The torture and degrading treatment to which the government subjected al-Hassan was not limited to the investigation phase, but extended until after his final death sentence was issued and his case was transferred to the Presidency of State Security to carry out the execution. In January 2019 (i.e. three months before he was killed), in a scene of pointless vindictiveness, government agents subjected him to several forms of abuse, including physical and psychological torture. In August 2019, the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention clearly reported the degree of horror and trauma al-Hassan suffered, as well as the violation of his right to life by his arbitrary execution and disregard for his complaints of torture.

Successive criticism of torture and unfair trials has not changed Saudi Arabia’s approach to the death penalty, as it continues to seek the execution of individuals that the government tortured and whose confessions the government extracted under duress. Among them is human rights advocate Hussein al-Farraj, for whom the prosecution sought the penalty of crucifixion for leading and filming demonstrations and participating in the funeral processions of demonstrators killed by government forces. Al-Farraj had been subjected to numerous types and forms of gratuitous torture with the aim of extracting confessions, including prying off his fingernails, stripping him naked, and electric shock. While Al-Farraj confirmed his torture before the judge, his trial and the prosecution’s petition for the death penalty remain ongoing, and it is not known whether the prosecution or the judge have initiated any steps to hold his torturers accountable.

The Gulf States support the Saudi government’s violations and torture. On March 5, 2019, the Sultanate of Oman colluded and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia a youth, Amjad Tariq al-Faraj, who had left the country for fear of arrest and torture. This is considered a violation of the principle of non-refoulment, which is prohibited by customary international law for people who may be subjected to torture and ill-treatment upon being returned to the country from which they fled. Saudi Arabia often practices retaliation and abuse against those who try to escape its oppression, as in the case of human rights advocate Mohammed al-Otaibi, highlighted by his harsh sentence and the opening of his second trial. This raises concerns about Amjad being subjected to torture and unfair trial.

Among the practices included in the crime of torture, it has been observed in some cases that Saudi Arabia has begun to lengthen the duration of time it places activists in solitary confinement. Since January 2019, human rights advocate Nassima al-Sadah has been in solitary confinement without justification for an unknown time period, and she has not been released from this confinement as of year’s end.

Saudi Arabia does not spare elderly and older women from torture. A report released by the human rights organization, ALQST, noted that an elderly woman, Aida al-Ghamidi, was subjected to painful and degrading torture after being arrested for receiving a monetary gift from her activist son, Abdullah al-Ghamidi, who lives in London.

The proliferation of cases of torture, which have reached advanced stages of ugliness and brutality, and lack of accountability confirm that what is happening in Saudi Arabia is not an isolated incident, but rather an institutional practice operating with the approval ofthe king and the crown prince, who provide protection for it. The escalation and frequency of the level of torture coincided with the establishment of the Presidency of State Security in July 2017, which is directly linked to the king. This means that torture crimes committed in political or other prisons fall directly under the king’s responsibility. Because the apparatus of repression is linked to the king and there is no separation of powers, it is impossible to hold the regime accountable. As a result, these widespread and officially-sanctioned crimes of torture usually go unpunished.


3)      Conditions for fair trials

In March 2019, at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the head of the Saudi delegation and former head of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, Dr. Bandar al-Aiban, said during the session to approve the additional Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), that the judiciary exercises its authority consistent with internationally-recognized principles of judicial independence. Contrary to these claims, Saudi Arabia has continued to issue harsh sentences based on trials that lacked the minimum standards of fairness, in some cases resulting in the death penalty. ESOHR observed dozens of sentences handed down by the Specialized Criminal Court (also known as the “terrorism court”) in 2019, including numerous death penalties. ESOHR believes that verdicts issued in political cases in 2019 are more numerous than those identified by NGO and media monitors, but it is not possible to account for all of them due to the lack of public trials and because victims and their families are kept quiet by means of intimidation.

Trials in criminal cases also greatly lack the requirements for fair trials. ESOHR has observed the death penalty issued against a minor accused of murder, Abdullah al-Hwaiti, which contained many egregious violations. Criminal sentences issued annually can exceed a thousand. For example, according to data from the Ministry of Justice for the year 1435 AH (November 5, 2013 to October 25, 2014), there were 1,104 sentences in various criminal cases, none of which received public oversight from civil society.

On February 18, 2019, during his visit to Pakistan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman issued an order to immediately release 2,107 Pakistani prisoners in his country. This decision demonstrated the marginalization of the justice system and its lack of independence in the face of the Crown Prince’s absolute powers.

When the conditions for fair trials are compared with what transpires in Saudi Arabia, especially in political cases, it is clear that there is a near-absence of just conditions. Before the trials begin, many violations and crimes occur, including arbitrary detention and forced disappearance. On April 4, 2019, the Saudi government launched a campaign of arrests for more than fifteen, including writers, bloggers, and activists, among them Dr. Sheikha al-Arf and her husband, lawyer and activist Abdullah al-Shehri, who were arrested after their house in Riyadh was raided; writer, Khadija al-Harbi, and her husband, writer and social media activist Thamar Marzouki; Salah al-Haidar, the son of human rights advocate Aziza al-Yousef; journalist and novelist Abdullah al-Dahilan; and writers Mohammed al-Sadiq and Badr al-Ibrahim, who works as a physician. Several of them have been subjected to enforced disappearance for various periods.

In other cases, Saudi Arabia also deliberately extends the period of isolation of detainees, such as Sheikh Samir al-Hilal, who has been detained since December 2015, and has remained—until the end of 2019—isolated from the outside world for 46 months. This extremely long isolation provides fertile soil for various types of violations, humiliating and degrading treatment, and widespread deprivation of basic rights, such as the right to appear before the court in a speedy manner, the right to know one’s charges, or the right to defend oneself.

The Saudi government has continued to use its flawed laws, such as the Cybercrime Act and the Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, in trials targeting male and female activists, despite criticisms of its court rulings, particularly by Ben Emmerson, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, in his report circulated during the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in February 2019, following his visit to Saudi Arabia.

In March 2019, the Saudi Public Prosecution announced in a statement that it had completed its investigations, prepared its indictments against persons arrested by the Presidency of State Security, and was in the process of referring them to the Specialized Criminal Court. Those referred to the Specialized Criminal Court are often male and female detainees who are champions of women’s rights, especially the right to drive. Then, without any legal explanation, the trial was switched from the terrorism court to the criminal court, thus demonstrating the absence of standards.

Because of the flaws in the judicial system and the inability to mount a true legal defence, ESOHR helped organize a press conference to defend the victims of abuse and injustice, such as the Jordanian prisoner Hussein Abu al-Khair, and Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, whose son, Dr. Abdullah, has engaged international lawyer François Zimeray. ESOHR also partnered with the American Bar Association to issue a legal analysis of the charges against human rights advocates Israa Al-Ghomgham and her husband and colleagues, for whom the Public Prosecution is seeking the death penalty. The organization also analyzed the sentencing documents of 27 accused individuals and the indictments of seven detainees, finding that the Public Prosecution and judges used an extremist approach to justify the execution and suppression of dissidents, as in the cases of human rights advocates Issam Koshik and Abdulaziz al-Shibili.


4)      Women’s rights

For years, female human rights advocates and activists have led a feminist struggle to call for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular, but this activism met nothing but a violent repressive reaction by the Saudi government, involving arrests, torture, and unfair trials. Now, however, the Saudi government has reversed course, and has launched what it is describing as radical reforms to promote women’s rights.

After lifting the ban on driving, and after pressure from the women’s movement to make certain legal corrections, a royal decree was issued in July 2019 on certain legal topics related to women.

Under these corrections, four government statutes that had for decades held women hostage to men in many of their decisions and movements were partially amended. The amendments, published in the official newspaper, Um Al-Qura, included the travel documents law, the civil status law, the labour code, and the social security law.

The corrections were made at a time of ongoing horrific violations and crimes against women in prison and in court, indifference to complaints of severe torture and sexual harassment of female human rights advocates, ongoing arbitrary prevention of many women from travelling, and occasional reports of women summoned for interrogation, thus placed them under stress out of fear, anxiety about arrest, and other violations that their victims refrain from divulging for fear of reprisal. Statistics available to the ESOHR indicate that seven women were arrested in 2019, including Maryam Al Qaysum, Maysaa al-Mana, and Maha al-Rafidi, out of a total of 69 women arrested in recent years. All these women, including many activists and human rights advocates, are political detainees.

Arrests in the ranks of women human rights advocates have diminished the boldness of women inside the country, but cautious advocacy continues on a number of issues, such as the tragic situation in girls’ shelters, domestic abuse, or the lack of a right to Saudi nationality for the children of Saudi women married to foreigners. Demands often appear on Twitter, as activists are not able to organize their activities in structured and specialized associations due to restrictions on civil society. Likewise, any public discussion of the unprecedented violations experienced by women during the reign of King Salman, or talk of civil and political rights, makes the speakers vulnerable to repression.


5)      Children’s rights

In 2019, abuses of children continued in clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Saudi Arabia in 1996, and with disregard for the observations and recommendations submitted to Saudi Arabia in 2016 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which commented on the violations and crimes brought to the Committee by numerous organizations.

Saudi Arabia not only executes adult dissidents and demonstrators, but also includes executes children. For example, six minors were executed during the April massacre: Abdullah Salman al-Sareeh, Mujtaba Nader al-Sweiket, Mohammed Said al-Skafi, Salman Amin Al Quraish, Abdulaziz Hussain Sahwi, and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj. The six children said before the court that they had been subjected to brutal torture during the investigation period in order to get them to sign confessions written by the investigators themselves, but the judges ignored their claims and issued death sentences against them.

Executions affecting children are part of a system in which children lack safety as a result of the behaviour of the Saudi government towards them. The situation has become more serious during the reign of King Salman, in which at least 10 minors have been executed, and it is unknown whether any of them had a fair trial. Furthermore, according to ESOHR monitoring, as of the end of 2019, 13 minors are at risk of execution, including Ali al-Nimr, Daoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zahir, who face final rulings, and Jalal Al Labbad, Ahmed al-Farraj, Ali Al Butti, Mohammed Hussain Al Nimr, Mohammed Essam al-Farraj, and Ali Hassan al-Farraj, for whom the Public Prosecution has sought the death penalty and whose trials are ongoing.

The risk of executions is not limited to children arrested for political reasons, as ESHOR has documented the case of a child, Abdullah al-Hwaiti, accused of murder, in light of information indicating his innocence, which opens a wide possibility of the presence of minors in criminal prisons who also face execution or other severe sentences.

In addition to unfair trials and executions, children may be subjected to other forms of abuse. ESOHR has received a complaint about the repeated sexual assault of detained children by employees in an observation home, which are special prisons for children. According to the complaint, most of them are afraid to disclose what has happened to them due to fear of torture and further abuse and lack of confidence that government agencies would protect them from retaliation. Through the end of 2019, it was not known whether the Public Prosecution would conduct any investigations into the complaint about which ESOHR published information.


6)       Capital punishment

In 2019, Saudi Arabia set a new record number of death sentences carried out, compared to the statistics available for previous years. There were 185 executions in 2019, while the largest number recorded prior to that was 157 in 2015, the first year of King Salman’s rule. This rise in the implementation of death sentences contradicts the Crown Prince’s promise, in April 2018, to reduce death sentences to the minimum possible.

Saudi Arabia started the first month of 2019 by executing four Yemeni residents for murder. In the last moments before their beheading, three of them testified that the fourth defendant, Yasin Muhammad Ali, was innocent of the charges, but the relevant authorities disregarded their testimony, and all four were beheaded. This bloody and brutal start heralded an unprecedented year of executions.

The peak in executions occurred in the beginning of the second quarter of the year, with the April massacre of 37 prisoners. This was the second massacre in the era of King Salman, following the January 2016 massacre in which 47 prisoners were beheaded, including social justice activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, children, and demonstrators.

The April 2019 massacre included the killing of six children, as well as demonstrators and activists. The trials that ESOHR was able to monitor lacked the conditions for a fair trial, and most of the detainees were subjected to severe torture. The executions ignored requests from the UN to halt the death of several detainees and re-try them fairly. For example, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had called for an  arrest of the execution of the youth, Munir Al Adam. Also among the victims was Haider al-Leif, even though Saudi Arabia had previously confirmed in its response to a complaint received from UN mechanisms that it had changed his sentence from execution to eight years in prison, stressing that his ruling was final. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia killed him suddenly and shockingly, and no one has been held responsible for his death.

According to the ESOHR’s documentation, through the end of 2019, 47 prisoners are facing execution at various stages of litigation. This includes 13 individuals charged with crimes dating back to when they were minors, three of whom have final verdicts: Ali al-Nimr, Daoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zahir. There is a single preliminary verdict against Abdullah al-Hwaiti. As for the remaining eight, the Public Prosecution is seeking their crucifixion, among them Jalal Al Labbad, Mohammed Essam al-Farraj, Mohammed Hussain Al Nimr, and Sajjad Mamdouh Al Yassin.

Most of those facing the death penalty are still being tried in the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, including those detained during the fierce campaign launched by Saudi Arabia in September 2017, such as Sheikh Salman al-Ouda, Sheikh Awad al-Qarni, and Dr. Ali al-Omri. The Public Prosecution is moving for them to be executed not for serious charges, but rather on broad charges such as joining the Muslim Brotherhood, praising sit-ins and demonstrations, objecting to the statement of the states boycotting Qatar, and joining ulema associations and unions that run contrary to the religious system of official senior religious scholars.

Likewise, the researcher, Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, is threatened with the death penalty based mostly on charges related to his religious views, his historical research, and the books he has written and certain books he owns. He was well-known for his opinions differing from the official ideology and his criticism of official religious thought, for which he was previously subjected to severe harassment, summonses, and imprisonment. That the death penalty is being sought in his case reveals the falsity of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statements and his claims of moderation, and it also confirms that extremist ideology is widely used in the non-independent judiciary in order to justify the killing of opinion-holders and opposition members.

As 2019 began with the ongoing trial of human rights advocate Israa al-Ghomgham, international human rights lawyer Oliver Windridge published legal observations in a brief memorandum, which noted that the charges against her and five other human rights advocates in her case constitutes violations of international human rights law. Then, in February 2019, as a result of pressure and censure, the Public Prosecution changed the request for the death penalty in her case to imprisonment. Meanwhile, the prosecution continued to seek the execution of her husband, Mr. Musa al-Hashem, and the other three, Ahmed al-Matroud, Ali al-Owaishir, and Khalid al-Ghanem, despite the fact that the charges they faced were so similar to hers as to be almost identical in some instances. Again, this confirms the absence of objective standards of justice and the complete subordination of the judiciary to the Saudi government.

Meanwhile, the case of the Jordanian citizen threatened with execution, Hussein Abu al-Khair, is in its most dangerous stage. All legal steps have been taken and a final death sentence has been issued, even though the United Nations has stressed that his case contains atrocious violations. He may be beheaded at any moment after the Saudi king—or his deputy—signs the death sentence.

Saudi Arabia has not changed its policy of executing minors, and according to the ESOHR’s latest count, the number of minors executed or threatened with execution has risen to 23, the vast majority of which have occurred during the reign of King Salman. The case of Murtaja Qureiris demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s appetite for killing minors, without regard for the fact that some of the charges against him go back to when he was 11 years old. The Public Prosecution did not limit its request to the death penalty for Murtaja, but also petitioned for him to be crucified after his death. The judge subsequently sentenced him to 12 years in prison, due to widespread international condemnation and denunciation of his case. As of the end of 2019, his case remains unfinished, and his 12-year prison sentence is pending appeal given the Public Prosecution’s request for the death penalty against him.

With regard to death penalty cases, Saudi Arabia continues the policy of withholding the bodies of individuals who have been executed in various ways. In 2019, 52 bodies were withheld, bringing the number of bodies so withheld to 85 from 2016-2019, according to the ESOHR’s latest update. This is in violation of international laws and intentionally tortures victims’ families psychologically by denying them the ability to bid farewell to their children, bury them according to their customs, and visit them.


7)      Extrajudicial Killing

During 2019, Saudi Arabia also used excessive force in residential neighbourhoods, resulting in several cases of extrajudicial killings. In 2019, forces mostly belonging to the Presidency of State Security that directly reports to King Salman killed at least 22 civilians during multiple raids. The first of these raids was in January 2019, when it killed six citizens in the city of Umm al-Hamam, in the Qatif Governorate. The official media continued to echo their usual narratives for such operations, condemning the victims and accusing them of planning terrorist operations.

In the same context, in April 2019, Saudi Arabia killed two citizens, Majid al-Farraj and Mahmoud al-Zarra, as they were travelling by car. Al-Farraj was on a “wanted” list of nine people. According to ESOHR sources, some of the wanted individuals refused to surrender themselves to the security forces for fear of the deadly torture practised in the Mabahith prisons, unfair trials, and extremely liberal use of the death penalty.

On the morning of Saturday, May 11, security forces of the Presidency of State Security also conducted a raid in the town of Sanabis, located on Tarout Island in the Qatif Governorate. The raid lasted for more than seven hours, and various weapons, including 20 armoured military and civilian vehicles, were used, killing eight people and causing extensive property damage. The town was besieged using heavy weapons, and some houses were destroyed without any justification.

Saudi Arabia’s regular attacks include numerous violations, breaches, and crimes, such as extrajudicial killing, intimidation of civilians, arbitrary arrests, property damage, and theft of property from homes in some cases, including money. In such raids, it does not appear that Saudi Arabia has taken care to avoid killing the targeted persons. Also, in Saudi Arabia, it is not possible to file legal complaints against the entities and individuals who participate in these raids due to the protections afforded to them by the king and his son.


8)      Statelessness (the Bidoon)

The issue of stateless individuals deprived of nationality in Saudi Arabia stalled in 2019, despite the fact that the Saudi government repeatedly made promises to solve their problem. On the other hand, advocates for the rights of the Bidoon are targeted with various types of repression and abuse with the aim of silencing their voices and preventing their grievances from being aired.

With the start of the school year in September 2019, the distress of Bidoon children in obtaining their basic right to education became apparent through the circulation of several video clips of children after their expulsion from school on the first day of school due to their lack of identification documents, including the video of the child, Nawar al-Anazi. While the problem was eventually resolved for this specific instance, Saudi Arabia still deprives the Bidoon of many of their rights, including the full right to work, higher education, and other things, many of which the ESOHR has documented in previous reports.

The issue of statelessness was circulated by UN special rapporteurs (including the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance) who sent a letter to the Saudi government in February 2019. The letter referenced the case of Khatam Farajallah and his father, Majid Farajallah, who are Palestinians, noting that they hold Palestinian nationality but that they are de facto deemed stateless. The rapporteurs stressed that the right to a nationality is recognized and protected under international law.

Several groups in Saudi Arabia suffer from the practical application of laws related to nationality, as well as residency. The ESOHR believes that their number may reach roughly three million, including groups without a nationality and groups with some form of residency but who suffer many complications and difficulties.


9)      Freedom of opinion and expression

During 2019, restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression increased, prosecution of journalists continued, and the numbers of prisoners of conscience swelled. While the report, issued in June 2019 by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Ms. Agnès Callamard, asserted that Saudi officials bear responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi for expressing opinions that ran counter to the official line, the government did not implement Callamard’s recommendations to take serious steps to hold accountable those responsible. Instead, it offered a farcical trial that attracted widespread indignation.

In addition, Saudi Arabia continued its abuses against journalists and bloggers, including the detention of Jordanian journalist Abdulrahman Farhana since February 2019. Despite international criticism of Saudi Arabia and its fall in the world rankings to number 172 out of 180 countries in the international classification issued by Reporters Without Borders, the number of journalists arrested continues to rise. In April 2019, Saudi Arabia also arrested 15 writers, bloggers, and activists.

Among those arrested were those who on previous occasions had expressed their views on matters related to reform, human rights, and women’s rights through social media, articles, and books. Although many of them ceased their activities long ago due to the rise in repression during the reign of King Salman and his son, they were nevertheless arrested, which is a message of intimidation and an ongoing reminder of the risk of arrest facing many people for expressing an opinion at any time. This applies to a campaign of arrests launched by Saudi Arabia in November 2019, targeting journalists and activists, including Wa’ad al-Muhaya, Abdulaziz al-Hais, Badr al-Rashed, Suleiman al-Saikhan al-Nasser, Musab Fouad al-Abdulkarim, Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi, Abdulrahman al-Shehri, and Fouad al-Farhan.


10)   Enforced disappearance

Enforced disappearance is one of the worst violations of human rights, as it deprives the victim of his basic right to freedom, is coupled with cases of deadly and brutal torture, and has negative psychological consequences for relatives who do not know the fate of their loved ones.

Among the best-known cases of enforced disappearance in Saudi Arabia, sufficient information as to allow resolution was only found in one case, while other cases remain unclear. According to reliable sources, journalist Turki al-Jasser telephoned his family at the end of December 2019, after a 656-day enforced disappearance. Saudi Arabia had arrested him on March 15, 2018, after receiving information from the Twitter office in Dubai stating that he was managing the government opposition account, “Kashkool,” according to media sources.

Meanwhile, the fate of dissident Ahmed al-Mughassil—the longest forcibly-disappeared prisoner in Saudi Arabia—has remained unknown through the end of 2019. It has been 1,588 days since Saudi Arabia received custody of him from the Lebanese government after his arrest at the Beirut airport. Sources told ESOHR that the Mabahith refused to disclose his fate when his family inquired about him and that one of the officers said to them: “Consider him dead, and do not ask about him.”

As for preacher Suleiman al-Dawish (born September 23, 1968), Saudi Arabia continues to ignore a July 2017 letter from the UN Working Group on enforced disappearance inquiring about his fate. Suleiman al-Dawish was arrested on April 22, 2016 while visiting Mecca, and the end of 2019 marked 1,347 days since his arrest and enforced disappearance.

Likewise, the fate of Saudi Red Crescent employee Abdul Rahman Al-Sadhan remains unclear, 659 days after his arrest from his workplace on March 12, 2018.

Saudi Arabia uses enforced disappearance systematically for multiple purposes and as a precursor to a range of violations. This approach was noted by the Working Group on enforced disappearance, along with issues monitored by the ESOHR, indicating that disappearance may be a precursor to torture and deprivation of rights.


Secondly: Saudi Arabia and the Human Rights Council

At the end of 2019, Saudi Arabia’s membership on the Human Rights Council (HRC), which began in 2017, came to an end. Prior to that, it had already been a three-time member of the Council. According to HRC regulations, the term of membership is three years, and no country may be a member for more than two consecutive terms.

This four-time membership has not had a positive impact on the human rights situation. On the contrary, the fourth term was the worst period ever, with events taking place that had not occurred during previous terms. This led dozens of organizations to call for the UN General Assembly to suspend Saudi Arabia’s membership on the HRC.

During the last year of its membership on the Council, Saudi Arabia was criticized by various HRC mechanisms, yet it continued its policy of ignoring, giving misleading responses and justifications, reneging on its voluntary international obligations to the treaties it has joined, and disregarding the opinions of the working groups and rapporteurs.

Saudi Arabia’s disregard for HRC mechanisms was apparent in the April 2019 massacre, when it executed 37 people, including individuals for whom various council mechanisms had previously requested a stay of execution. The former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, spoke of them in paragraph 49 of his report, saying, “Reportedly, the trial failed to meet due process and fair trial standards, and the defendants were tortured and denied access to lawyers,” referring to the trial of 24 prisoners, including children and demonstrators, 14 of whom were put to death by Saudi Arabia in the April massacre. In paragraph 55 of his report, Emmerson called on the government to “urgently review all current cases in which prisoners accused and sentenced for crimes of terrorism are facing the death penalty,” and stressed that “the death sentence…should never be imposed on individuals who were minors at the time the crimes were committed or on persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities.” In his report’s concluding recommendations, Emmerson called for the government to investigate allegations of torture (paragraph C) and ensure that “coerced confessions are always inadmissible.” ESOHR documents showed that most of them were severely tortured.

Saudi Arabia showed a widespread disregard for UN mechanisms and, after the execution of businessman Abbas al-Hassan in the April 2019 massacre, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a legal opinion expressing shock, horror, and anger at the execution, given the oddness and pettiness of the charges against him, which had failed to actually contain any allegations of his involvement in espionage. The Working Group’s opinion also cited the numerous abuses to which al-Hassn was subjected, the torture crimes committed against him, and his trial, which was grossly inconsistent with the standards of fair trials.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also expressed its dissatisfaction and anger at the execution of the minor protester, Abdulkarim Al-Hawaj, and the protester, Munir Al Adam, as part of the April massacre, especially since it had specifically called for a guarantee of their physical and mental safety in August 2018.

In September 2019, a report issued by the UN Secretariat confirmed Saudi Arabia’s aggressive behaviour towards human rights advocates and activists, especially those who cooperate with the UN and its human rights mechanisms. The report referred to a sample of human rights advocates: Samar Badawi, Loujain al-Hathloul, Yahya al-Asiri, Muhammad al-Qahtani, Issa al-Nukheifi, Fawzan al-Harbi and his wife, Amal al-Harbi, and from Yemen, Abdul Rashid al-Faqih and Radhya Almutawakel, from the organization Mwatana for Human Rights.

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most prominent issues in the Human Rights Council in 2019. Under its auspices, a historic step was taken to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the crime of the premeditated extrajudicial killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, as confirmed in the report of Special Rapporteur Ms. Agnès Callamard. The historic nature of this step lies in the fact that it placed Saudi Arabia before a neutral party to investigate its violations.

In addition, Saudi Arabia was the subject of constant criticism in 2019 by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet. In March, during the opening of the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, she expressed her concern about the arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, and torture of numerous female human rights advocates, saying that these practices contradicted official claims of reform. After the April massacre, Bachelet condemned the executions, describing them as appalling, and noted the repeated calls by UN human rights mechanisms regarding the lack of due process procedures to guarantee fair trials, the allegations of victims subjected to torture in order to obtain specific confessions, as well as the presence of minors among the victims of the massacre.

In June 2019, in her opening speech at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council, the Commissioner condemned Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, especially with regard to the death penalty. She also expressed her regret over Saudi Arabia’s rejection of the report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Ms. Callamard, on the crime of killing Jamal Khashoggi.

In addition to official criticisms, Saudi Arabia received criticism from human rights organizations before the Human Rights Council, including a joint statement under item six of the agenda of the HRC at its 40th session, affirming that Saudi Arabia exploits the HRC and its membership in it to justify its violations and practice deception, rather than to develop and promote respect for rights.

Some victims’ relatives also participated in the HRC session. A Jordanian woman, Zainab Abu al-Khair, raised the case of her brother, Hussein Abu al-Khair, before the Council and asked it to intervene to protect him from execution on non-serious charges. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia went on to handle his case unfairly, and a final death sentence was issued against him under which he may be executed at any moment.


Thirdly: International and Governmental Positions

As a result of the significant deterioration in human rights in Saudi Arabia during the year 2019, and the ongoing accumulation of negative events, dozens of countries have raised criticisms of Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented abuses.

In February 2019, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia’s abuse of Saudi men and women detainees, calling for actions to stop them. The resolution called on European Union countries to take measures against Saudi Arabia due to its violations, stressing the importance of taking a common position by imposing a ban on the export of weapons and a surveillance system to Saudi Arabia, which it could use to oppress citizens, including female human rights advocates.

Furthermore, after the April 2019 massacre, the EU condemned the executions, viewing them as confirmation of Saudi Arabia’s negative stance that runs counter to the global trend toward eliminating the death penalty. The EU had issued a statement on April 2, 2019, after Saudi Arabia executed four people for drug trafficking offences, emphasizing the EU’s opposition to the death penalty and reiterating its calls for its elimination.

During the 40th session of the HRC, and for the first time in its history, in a series of condemnations of Saudi violations, 36 nations used the mechanism of a joint statement – testimony to the rising level of anger towards Saudi Arabia’s practices. The statement, led by Iceland and delivered by its permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Mr. Harald Aspelund, to the HRC in its 40th session on March 7, 2019, called for the immediate release of female human rights advocates detained for exercising their basic freedoms.

After the statement from the 36 nations, Saudi Arabia did not respond to its recommendations or demands. This drove a group of 24 nations to issue another statement at the 42nd session of the HRC in September 2019, calling for Saudi Arabia to adhere to the highest standards for promoting and protecting human rights and cooperate fully with the Council, including accepting visits from rapporteurs in accordance with its international obligations and its membership in the HRC.

In addition to the joint positions of countries, several individual stances were taken in 2019, unprecedented in their number and content. During the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, Denmark announced that it was focused on the violations committed by Saudi Arabia, stressing its concern about torture, executions, and other abuses. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, also expressed concerns about women’s rights and the consequences of Khashoggi’s murder. In addition, Switzerland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs called for light to be shed on attacks against journalists such as Khashoggi, while the Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs criticized the status of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, describing Khashoggi’s killing as brutal, and the EU registered concern about the conduct of trials of human rights advocates in Saudi Arabia.

In July 2019, after Callamard issued her report holding Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, Ireland, Canada, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Norway (on behalf of the Nordic countries), and the EU commented on the rapporteur’s report, condemning the crime and calling for immediate action.

In June 2019, the Austrian government announced its intention to close the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) after the Austrian parliament voted to close it. The Austrian Foreign Ministry responded by promising to implement the parliamentary resolution, which was backed by four political parties and came amid the Saudi Public Prosecution’s request for the death penalty against the minor, Murtaja Qureiris.

In August 2019, a former member of the British House of Lords and lawyer, Baroness Helena Kennedy, called for sending a mission to Saudi Arabia to investigate the death penalty and demanded that victims’ bodies be returned. Her calls came in a report she issued, in participation with human rights organizations, on illegal executions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, expressing concern for the grave violations in the application of this punishment.



2019 left many grievances in its wake, closing the local avenues for victims to seek remedies and justice. The main danger is that the public security apparatus and the judiciary have turned into instruments for targeting the persecuted rather than protecting and supporting them. These agencies have become a source of fear rather than an object of reassurance. At the same time, these agencies have become an umbrella to shield senior decision-makers and their underlings from accountability and punishment.

Saudi Arabia’s continued interest in strengthening the tools of misinformation, such as its media institutions or official human rights institutions, reveal its lack of an intention to make real reforms.

Moreover, the emergence of clear roles for political allies to cover up Saudi Arabia’s crimes and violations, and even participate in some of them, has destroyed faith in the existence of an objective system of international political relations that would play an honest role in pushing Saudi Arabia to respect human rights.

ESOHR believes in the importance of working on all legitimate, feasible avenues towards the respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia, and believes in the importance of strengthening the advocacy mechanisms used and developing their performance. ESOHR considers that recognized institutions that play a role in human rights work have an important function. However, at the same time, ESOHR stresses the importance of new tracks, and believes that the avenue of varied international legal action has become more important than ever. At a time where ESOHR is prioritizing legal action in 2020, it welcomes cooperation with individuals and institutions that share our approach and priorities.

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