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ESOHR highlighted repression against human rights defenders had increased alongside the Saudi governments propaganda campaign to enhance its image in front of the international community.
The side event, which was organized by Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), during the thirty seventh session of UN HRC, was held on March 7, 2018, and entitled “Repression against Saudi Activists”.As well as ESOHR several other panellist offered insights, including representative from FIDH, PEN International and CIVEX, Tyler pry, a member of ADHRB, moderated the event and started by highlighting that the event was held days before the fifth anniversary of detaining two founders of the Civil and Political Rights organisation, Abdullah Al Hamed and Mohammad Qahtani. He also offered insights into the changes that Saudi Arabia is experiencing and highlighted the forthcoming Saudi Universal Periodic Reviewdue in November 2018.
During ESOHR’s intervention submitted by the organisations researcher, Douaa Dhainy, ESOHR recalled that the new law of association and lifting the ban on women’s driving do not reflect any real progress, as numerous other violations continue.
Furthermore, the organisation confirmed that all the decisions issued during this new ‘reform’ period, happened amidst persistent exclusion of citizens from political participation, which has occurred simultaneously with mounting repression.
Additionally, the intervention also highlighted the anti-terrorism law of 2014 which violates international standards and restricts civil society, clarifying that it has been subject to many criticisms. In November 2017 a revised version of these laws was issued. Despite this, ESOHR noted that it still violates international standards, as well as it targets human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society members.
Neil George from PEN International, focused his intervention on Saudi Arabia’s violation of freedom of expression, referring to torture, arbitrary detention and maltreatment, which bloggers, activists and writers have been exposed to. He also asserted that there is an absence of laws protecting freedom of expression, especially as there is no constitution is Saudi Arabia; and the local laws do not protect citizens and allow their violation and restriction in the name of national security. Moreover, Mr. George pointed out to the lack of international options to address these violations, as Saudi Arabia hasn’t yet ratified many of the international agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). He also added that, although Saudi Arabia is a member in the Convention against Torture (CAT), it still systematically practice it. Likewise, Mr. George discussed the restrictions on freedom of religion and freedom of association setting out the cases of Raif Badawi, Nather Al Majed and Zuhair Kutbi. He also called on Saudi Arabia to ratify all human rights agreements without reservations, and to reform counter- terrorism laws and the restrictive laws of freedom of association, in addition to providing legal protection for freedom of expression.
Besides, Sarah Brandt, CIVEX representative, discussed how Saudi civil society is unable to operate effectively, pointing to the usage of anti-terrorism law and cybercrime laws to eradicate opponents, activists, and human rights defenders. The government is using it’s new law of association to ensure the inability of any independent civil society organization or human rights organization to progress in the country, the intervention reiterated.
The statement also referred toobstacles with regards to the registration of an association, which includes a long waiting term and financial barriers. The result is that all the registered associations are governmental, quasi- governmental or related to the monarchy. Mrs. Brant shed the light on the usage of counter terrorism law to prosecute activists and protestors including 17 citizens facing the danger of execution, asserting that the Saudi government since 2011 has banned demonstrations. Brandt also referred to the worrisome trend through using anti-corruption charges to justify violations.
Moreover, the FIDH member Mrs. Jasmine Lavilfocused her intervention on human rights defenders and observed a mobilization against them, noting that Saudi women are a facing double discrimination due to their gender and political expressions. Lavil pointed to restrictions on Saudi women because of the guardianship system that prevents them from having their rights, like traveling or filing a lawsuit, etc. During her intervention, she called upon the authorities to review the law of association to provide legal protection of human rights men and women defenders and to annul the discriminatory guardianship system. Also, her intervention referred to the recent changes of laws that annul the ban on women’s driving and attending important sports events, which have been used to distract Saudi citizens and the international community from other human rights violations.