Watchdog Cites Saudi Human Rights
by Jim Krane
A U.S. human rights watchdog that sent
a team to Saudi Arabia to investigate abuses said in a new report
the kingdom keeps thousands of prisoners in jail without charge,
sentences children to death and oppresses women.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said
it had been invited by Saudi authorities to conduct a four-week
mission that started in December. Its 13-person team, led by executive
director Kenneth Roth, operated under 24-hour surveillance and
was blocked at times from observing trials and visiting jails,
according to the report released Saturday.
But the group also said it gained unprecedented
access to senior officials among the judiciary, police and enforcers
of Islamic law. In some areas, including Riyadh and Jiddah, researchers
did not have government escorts, HRW said.
"The Saudi government's invitation
to Human Rights Watch reflects a newfound openness toward discussing
domestic human rights issues," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle
East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "By
restricting our access to prisons and withholding general permission
to observe trials, however, the Saudi government gave the appearance
that it still has much to hide."
Saudi secret police hold thousands of
political prisoners for years without charge or trial, the report
alleged. They include some suspected of ties to the Iraqi insurgency.
It said prisoners at al-Ha'ir prison south
of Riyadh reported physical abuse and said they remained locked
up long after their sentences expired.
The rights group also said children are
jailed for minor offenses, including vague "morals"
charges, and face beatings and solitary confinement. Children
as young as 13 have been sentenced to death, though the report
did not say what they had been sentenced for.
The report also found Saudi courts offer
criminal defendants few opportunities to defend themselves and
said many are found guilty with little supporting evidence. Trials
remain closed despite laws declaring they are open to the public,
and judges commonly pronounce guilty verdicts based on little
evidence, it said.
Attempts to reach the Saudi Information
Ministry for comment on Sunday were unsuccessful and Saudi authorities
do not usually respond to allegations of rights abuses.
The State Department in the past has called
the U.S. ally's human rights record "poor overall,"
and alleged security forces abuse prisoners.
Human Rights Watch said it also found
women have no right to act on their own behalf and are subject
to the control of male guardians, even for everyday activities.
Guardians can restrict employment, education and freedom of movement.
The group also alleged abuse of the country's
9 million foreign workers is rampant. Workers go unpaid for months
or years, despite working long hours at times with no days off.
Physical and sexual abuse was found to be commonplace, as were
incidents of forced labor and human trafficking.
A "significant number" of the
more than 300 people interviewed expressed fear of government
retaliation, the report said.
Despite recent moves to allow some local
elections, Saudi Arabia remains under centralized, dynastic rule.
Human rights activists say King Abdullah, who took the throne
in 2005, has paved the way for a more open discussion of human
rights issues but hard-liners have derailed reforms and little
The HRW report praised the kingdom for
gradually increasing the opportunity for the public discussion
of human rights issues, though it says freedom of expression remains
"Several ministers expressed their
desire to invite Human Rights Watch back to Saudi Arabia to discuss
our findings in detail," the report said.
Middle East watch