There are two bodies concerned with human rights in Saudi Arabia, one
governmental and one nongovernmental. The nongovernmental was established on
9 March, 2004 under the name “National Society for Human Rights”. Not much
is heard from the governmental body but the National Society for Human
Rights has already published on its website its first report in 42 full
pages. The report is, without doubt, an important landmark in the modern
history of Saudi Arabia and it is worth reading very carefully.
The report spells out the aim of the Society which is the promotion and
protection of human rights in the kingdom through the monitoring and
documentation of human rights’ violations, educating and informing the Saudi
people and expatriates of their rights, as well as studying local
regulations in order to bring attention to any violations with human rights
that they might contain. The report promises to be issued annually and to
watch very closely and evaluate very carefully the state of human rights in
the kingdom and to note and encourage progress in this regard.
The report starts by laying out the legal frame for human rights in Saudi
Arabia, which consists of:
* The Islamic sharie’ah,
* The Basic Law of Government,
* Local regulations,
* International human rights charters endorsed by the kingdom.
For the last three years, since it was established, the society received
more than 8,570 complaints of human rights violations of which 22% are
related to administrative breaches, 18% by prisoners, 13% job related, 8%
family violence, 7% about civil cases, 7% personal, 6% about faulty judicial
procedures, 19% miscellaneous.
The first chapter in the report lists all the Arab and international
treaties, charters and agreements related to human rights, which are binding
to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia by virtue of endorsing and signing them. The
report points out that the kingdom is bound to review all its laws and
regulations to make sure that none of them contradicts these signed
agreements. In the meantime, the report urges the kingdom to join the
international community and sign other treaties and charters, which it had
not signed yet.
The report recommends the establishment of a supreme court with mandate to
abolish any clause or paragraph in the local laws and regulations that
violates international human rights treaties endorsed by the kingdom or the
constitutional rights of its citizens.
The report stresses the importance of the proper application of and strict
adherence to the procedures specified by the Saudi penal code regarding
arrest, detention and interrogation, most importantly:
* any person taken into custody has the right to be told immediately of the
reason for the arrest and be granted the right to contact whomever (s)he
wishes to inform about his/her arrest,
* not to torture or insult the detained person in any way,
* not to coerce the detained to give information under duress,
* the detained has the right to seek the help of a lawyer,
It is pointed out that the penal code is not yet fully understood by most
judges, policemen, inspectors, interrogators and magistrates. This had lead
to serious breaches of individual rights and liberty. People and agencies
responsible for such negligence must be held accountable and any arrest or
trial conducted according to faulty procedures must be deemed nil and void.
Proper application of the penal code requires that its bylaws be codified
and set down clearly in writing. This is to insure consistent application
and minimize discrepancies due to differences in individual interpretation.
The penal code as it exists now suffers from ambiguity and some other
shortcomings. For example, it does not give the detained the right to remain
silent and to ask for the help of a lawyer. Due to this fuzziness, different
judges might pass different judgments on similar cases, each according to
his own discretion.
The report points out that the society has received many complaints about
the excesses of certain agencies in interrogating and handling suspects,
detainees and convicts through beating and other forms of physical and
psychological tortures. Most complaints were lodged against religious
police, regular police, and officers working for narcotics division.
Prisoners are also subjected to torture and punishment in their cells at the
hands of their jailers. The report recommends that a prisoner should be
given a medical examination any time (s)he claims that (s)he was subjected
to torture. Whenever there is a solid proof of torture the person(s)
responsible must be punished. Such cases of torture should be looked into by
the Board of Grievances.
In addition to all this, some agencies, especially the religious police,
were notorious for breaking and entering private homes and offices for
search and inspection without search warrant or authorization. It was
pointed out that the perpetrators of such violations of individual rights
were never reprimanded or punished by their superiors or dismissed from
their jobs. When the victims lodged complaints against the perpetrators of
such violations, their complaints were forwarded to the perpetrators
themselves to handle them.
The powers and authority of some agencies, such as security forces and, in
particular, the religious police, were worded in such a wide and loose
manner which made them almost unlimited and amenable to multiple
interpretations. This enabled such agencies to violate individual rights
with immunity. The report recommends the rewording of the jurisdictions of
such agencies in a more precise manner. The society received many complaints
in this regard including:
* unwarranted arrests,
* car chasing, cursing, insulting and embarrassing in public,
* unwarranted personal inspection, beating and forced admissions,
* breaking and entering of private residents,
* damage to personal property such as cars, mobile phones and computers.
The report stresses the importance of wearing special uniforms and carrying
identity cards by officers of the religious police to prevent other zealots
from masquerading as religious police.
Among other violations of human rights and civil liberties monitored by the
* restriction on the movement of some citizens or the confiscation of their
passports and preventing them from traveling abroad,
* unfair practices by various branches of the government regarding
employment and the rewarding of jobs not according to qualifications but
according to criteria not always relevant to the job or position,
* the spread of bribery, nepotism and favoritism,
* discrimination against persons who belong to certain sects or tribes or
regions in the kingdom.
* discrimination against and exploitation of foreign workers and domestics
by their sponsors and employers.
* preferential treatment of and better salaries for European and Western
expatriates visa vis other nationalities and races.
The third chapter in the report discusses in some details civil rights in
the kingdom, including religious tolerance and freedom of religion. Civil
rights also include obtaining citizenship for all legible persons with the
full rights entailed by that. The report notes that children of Saudi
fathers and non-Saudi mothers are granted Saudi citizenship while the
opposite is not the case, which constitutes a form of discrimination against
The chapter also touches on the judicial procedures stressing the importance
of every person receiving a fair and speedy trial. Then the chapter moves on
to point out some deficiencies in the legal system which include:
* show of preferential and unequal treatment by judges towards litigants,
either in the passing of judgment or in giving opportunity for defense and
presentation of the case,
* discrimination against witnesses and the evaluation of some above others
and the acceptance of the testimony of police officers and members of the
religious police against detainees without scrutiny,
* resort to unwarranted secret trials in many cases,
* lack of expertise by judges in many of the cases they look into.
* shortage of qualified judges,
The fourth chapter of the report deals with the touchy issue of political
rights. It calls for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and the
encouragement of establishing various organizations of civil society. It
also points out that political authority resides in public consent,
therefore, it calls for public participation in the making of public
policies and political decisions through the institution of periodical free
public elections and the granting of women the full right to vote and hold
public office. In addition to the partial municipal elections, members of
the Consultative Councils should be partially, if not fully, elected.
The fifth chapter of the report deals with social and cultural rights while
the sixth chapter deals with the rights of minorities and oppressed groups,
including women children, prisoners and foreign workers. Some social norms,
which discriminate against women are confused with religious prescriptions.
Freedom of women is restricted in some cases where the consent of the
woman’s male guardian is required. A woman is sometimes subjected to the
arbitrary authority of her male guardian, even if she happened to be highly
educated while he is uninformed illiterate. Also, the child of a Saudi woman
is not granted citizenship if his father is not a Saudi. Some women are
still forced to marry against their well to men they do not want to marry
while prevented from marrying the man they wish to marry. This also goes for
divorce and custody of children. The report also noted the rise of cases of
family violence against women and children.
Violations of prisoners’ rights include crowded and poorly equipped prisons,
lack of medical treatment, detention of children with dangerous adult
criminals and the delay of prisoners’ release after the expiration of their
As for foreign workers, they are under the mercy of their sponsors who
sometimes deny them their rights and subject them to exploitation and
The report concludes by making several recommendations the most important of
* the establishment of a supreme court with the mandate to streamline local
regulations with all international human rights charters endorsed by the
* the undertaking of adjusting local legislations by the Consultative
Council and other concerned branches of the government to bring them in line
with international treaties concerned with human rights.
* restructuring the judicial system and guaranteeing the independence and
impartiality of judges,
* promoting accountability to root out corruption and abuse of power,
* promoting the role of the organizations of civil society and their
participation in national dialogue and reform,
* promoting freedom of expression and defending individual rights and
All in all, the report lacks neither courage nor transparency. Yet, it does
not adopt a confrontational language with the government. It is a sober and
well-balanced report, which takes account of the positive as well as the
negative. It shows progress made by the kingdom in the field of human rights
and, at the same time, points out areas where more work needs to be done.