Watchdog Cites Saudi Human Rights Abuses

by Jim Krane

Associated Press, February 18, 2007


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 has changed.

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 tightly controlled.

"Several ministers expressed their desire to invite Human Rights Watch back to Saudi Arabia to discuss our findings in detail," the report said.

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