Arab and International

Saudi Arabia: Unrelenting Repression

Positive Reforms for Women Tainted by Ongoing Arrests of Activists, Dissidents

Saudi authorities carried out a sweeping campaign of repression against independent dissidents and activists, including two waves of mass arrests, in 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

The arrests and harassment coincided with the most significant advancements for Saudi women in recent years, including removing travel restrictions for women 21 and over and granting women more control over civil status issues.

“Reforms for Saudi women do not whitewash the rampant harassment and detention of Saudi activists and intellectuals, including women’s rights activists, who simply expressed their views publicly or privately,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia has any hope of rehabilitating its tattered image, the authorities should immediately release everyone they’ve locked away merely for their peaceful criticism.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, faced no meaningful justice during 2019 for abuses by state security agents over the past few years, including the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and the alleged torture of women’s rights advocates.

Dozens of Saudi dissidents and activists, including four prominent women’s rights defenders, remain in detention while they and others face unfair trials on charges tied solely to their public criticism of the government or peaceful human rights work. Mass arrests in April and November targeted over 20 Saudi intellectuals and writers.

As the leader of the coalition that began military operations against Houthi forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. On June 20, 2019, a United Kingdom appeals court ruled that the UK government’s refusal to consider Saudi Arabia’s laws-of-war violations in Yemen before licensing arms sales was unlawful, a ruling that resulted in the suspension of new UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the government makes a new lawful decision on arms licenses or obtains a new court order.

In late July, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers promulgated landmark amendments to three laws that will begin to dismantle the country’s discriminatory male guardianship system, including allowing women 21 and over to travel abroad and to obtain a passport without the approval of a male guardian. The reforms also included important advances for women on civil status issues, allowing women to register their children’s births with the civil status office, which was previously restricted to fathers or paternal relatives. Changes to the Labor Law introduced a new protection against discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, disability, or age.

“It’s a cruel irony that Saudi women are enjoying new freedoms while some of those who fought hardest for them remain behind bars or facing blatantly unfair trials,” Page said.

Human Rights Watch

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