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The UN has said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has failed to adhere to its international obligations regarding cooperation with the UN, its representatives, and its mechanisms in the area of human rights.
In a report issued in the framework of the 45th session of the HRC, which relies on information gathered between 1 June 2019 and 30 April 2020, the HRC’s High Commissioner and the UN Secretary-General expressed concern over continued reports of intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups who seek to cooperate with the UN, its representatives, and its mechanisms in the field of human rights.
The report, which listed violations in 21 nations, revealed a pattern of violations in Saudi Arabia against activists and human rights advocates, and acts of retaliation against them, including arbitrary detention, ill treatment, torture, and harassment. The report also includes information regarding ten detained individuals.
Failure of international obligations
In December 2019, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights addressed “patterns of intimidation and reprisals” in writing. On 15 July 2019, UN Special Procedures mandate holders expressed their grave concern over the execution of 37 people on 23 April 2019, including Mounir Al Adam, who was put to death while his detention was under consideration by the relevant Working Group. Al Adam, who had a disability, was one of 14 youths charged in connection with their participation in pro-democracy demonstrations and sentenced to death. In August 2018, Special Rapporteurs asked the Saudi government to guarantee his physical and mental well-being and expressed their fears that he would be subjected to torture and ill treatment while in detention. After the execution, the Working Group noted, in its opinion issued in November 2019, that it considered Al Adam’s detention arbitrary and his killing an irreparable harm. On 12 September 2019, the Saudi government responded by denying these reports.
In November 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention highlighted cases related to interaction with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and other UN human rights mechanisms, explaining that Saudi Arabia has violated its international obligations in 60 cases. The Working Group also registered its concern that this indicates a systemic problem with arbitrary detention in Saudi Arabia that rises to a serious level of violation of international law.
Acts of reprisal against individuals who cooperate with the UN
The report notes that in July 2019, a group of HRC member states reiterated “their serious concerns regarding all acts of intimidation or reprisal against human rights advocates and investigative journalists seeking involvement or engagement with the UN” in Saudi Arabia.
In its November 2019 opinion, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported that Mr. Abdulaziz Mohammed al-Shubaily, of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (HASEM), was arbitrarily detained. It raised particular concerns regarding the Saudi government’s retaliation against him because he gave information to UN human rights mechanisms. The Working Group called on the authorities to secure his immediate release and compensation.
In March 2018, the government reported that Mr. al-Shubaily was imprisoned under a final sentence for crimes committed under the Cybercrimes Law, clearly tarnishing the image of the Council of Senior Scholars and scorning the judiciary.
Follow-up on cases of individuals mentioned in previous reports
- The report refers to the case of human rights advocate Abdullah al-Hamid, whose death on 24 April 2020 resulted from willful negligence. He was sentenced to a six-year prison term for, among other things, “spreading false information to foreign groups.” The Working Group had found his detention to be arbitrary and had urged his release on previous occasions.
According to information given to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on 9 April 2020, al-Hamid suffered a stroke in al-Ha’ir Prison and fell into a coma. He was transferred to King Saud Medical City, where he remained in critical condition. Reportedly, the stroke was the result of poor prison conditions and systematic denial of adequate medical care by prison authorities. Al-Hamid was also reportedly often denied phone calls and visits, and prison authorities refused to allow him to inform anyone outside the prison of his deteriorating health. In January 2020, al-Hamid’s doctor recommended he undergo a cardiac catheterization, but the prison administration delayed the operation for several months and did not allow him to remain in the hospital while awaiting the operation.
- The Secretary-General’s 2019 report included the case of Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul, who was arrested after interacting with the Committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. On 27 September 2019, Special Procedures mandate holders urged Saudi Arabia to release her, noting that “it is shockingly hypocritical that Ms. al-Hathloul remains in prison for campaigning to change laws which have since been amended.” On 6 December 2019, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women wrote a private letter to the government and, in February 2020, publicly urged Saudi Arabia to free Ms. al-Hathloul from prolonged pre-trial detention and to immediately guarantee her right to a fair trial.
On 13 August 2019, the media reported that the Secretary of Saudi State Security visited Ms. al-Hathloul in prison to negotiate a deal for her release in exchange for her making a video statement denying she had been tortured; however, she refused. In retaliation, she was placed in solitary confinement and could no longer communicate with her family.
- The Secretary-General’s 2015 and 2019 reports included the case of Ms. Samar Badawi, who claimed she was threatened and interrogated after making a statement at the HRC in 2014. The High Commissioner for Human Rights was informed that Ms. Badawi had appeared before the Criminal Court in Riyadh on 27 June 2019, without legal representation and for the first time since her arrest in July 2018.
- The Secretary-General’s 2019 report included the case of Mr. Yahya al-Assiri, of the ALQST human rights organization, who allegedly received death threats and harassment online because of his statement during the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review in March 2019. Reportedly, some of the women human rights advocates detained in 2018 were interrogated about information they gave him that he used at the Human Rights Council.
- The Secretary-General’s reports for 2012, 2013, and 2019 included the case of Mr. Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani, of the HASEM organization. Al-Qahtani was sentenced to ten years in prison and a ten-year travel ban for providing information to foreign sources, including UN human rights mechanisms.
- The Secretary-General’s 2018 and 2019 reports included the case of human rights advocate Mr. Essa al-Nukheifi, after he was sentenced to six years in prison, and banned from travel and social media for six years after his release, for cooperating with the visit of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in January 2017. In its opinion issued in November 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Mr. al-Nukheifi’s detention is arbitrary.
On 8 April 2019, Mr. al-Nukheifi requested transfer from the Makkah General Prison to the Jizan Prison to be able to see his family, including his 80-year-old mother, but this request was denied. Instead, in August 2019, Mr. al-Nukheifi was transferred to the al-Ha’ir Prison in Riyadh, reportedly for a retrial.
- The Secretary-General’s reports for 2017 and 2019 included the case of Mr. Essa Hamid al-Hamid, a human rights advocate and member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (aka HASEM). The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considers his detention arbitrary and has requested his release.
- The Secretary-General’s reports for 2014 and 2019 included the case of Mr. Fawzan Mohammed al-Harbi, a human rights advocate and member of HASEM, who was allegedly arrested and detained in connection with his cooperation with the UN. The case of Mr. al-Harbi’s wife, Mrs. Amal al-Harbi, was noted in the Secretary-General’s 2019 report. In May 2020, the High Commissioner for Human Rights learned of her release from Dhahban Prison in May 2019, after she was arrested in July 2018 as a result of her campaign to free her husband.
ESOHR believes that this report provides an adequate answer for the causes of the limited activity of civil society from within Saudi Arabia in the workings of the HRC. ESOHR also considers the Saudi government’s targeting of individuals due to their domestic and foreign human rights activities an attempt to hush up the government’s abuses, which have increased in frequency in recent years.
ESOHR stresses that official Saudi treatment of advocates who cooperate with the UN highlights the reality of its dealings with UN mechanisms as a whole. This reality is in contradiction to the government’s repeated claims, especially before the Human Rights Council, that Saudi Arabia engages fully with human rights mechanisms and adheres to its international commitments.