Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Record Under International Fire

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has attracted international attention following a diplomatic row with Sweden. The row started after Margot Wallström, Sweden’s foreign minister, denounced the suppression of women in Saudi Arabia  and the authoritarian control of their rights. She also criticized the treatment of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for promoting secularism and free speech and questioning the practices of the country’s religious clerics. Calling such subjugation “nearly mediaeval”, she added that it was a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression”.

Badawi, who founded the Saudi Liberal Network Internet discussion group, was rounded up in June 2012 under cyber-crime provisions and ordered to shut down the website for publishing content that was perceived as anti-Islamic and immoral. His case, which is illustrative of an ongoing trend of harassment of Saudi human rights activists, has sparked worldwide outrage and condemnation from the United Nations, United States, European Union, Canada and others.

Sweden’s tiff with the Saudis intensified after Wallström was banned from making the opening address at an Arab League meeting in Egypt a few weeks later. She had been invited as an honorary guest to the meeting in praise of her government’s decision to recognize Palestine in October 2014. She called the ban a “shame” and said that “the explanation we have been given is that Sweden has highlighted the situation for democracy and human rights and that is why they do not want me to speak.” The European Union also expressed “regret” at the decision. Sweden scrapped a long-standing arms deal with the Saudis following the incident.

The Saudis, meanwhile, launched a series of vocal protests against what they considered interference in their domestic affairs by an outsider. Some even went so far as to call Wallström’s comments an “insult to Islam”.

The Saudi Council of Ministers added their own condemnation of the Swedish minister’s statement, emphasizing that the fundamentals of Islam being followed by about 1.5 billion Muslims around the world were not subject to any bargaining. Without any reference to Raif Badawi, the cabinet added that attacking Saudi Arabia’s judicial system as well as the social and cultural patterns simply because they differ from the pattern prevailing in other countries is “contrary to the principles of the international community that call for respecting religions as well as social and cultural diversity”.

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs also joined the fray, denouncing “the media campaign around the case of Raif Badawi” and criticism of its judiciary. “The kingdom does not accept any form of interference in its internal affairs and rejects…the attack on the independence of its justice system,” the official SPA news agency quoted a ministry spokesman as saying. The spokesman added that “some international parties seek to politicize the issue of human rights by selectively attacking the sovereign rights of states and this is clearly unacceptable”. The ministry went a step further, recalling the kingdom’s ambassador to Sweden.

Not to be outdone, the kingdom’s clerics led by the Grand Mufti launched their own tirade. “Whoever questions the legitimacy and independence of the sharia justice system is either ignorant or biased and such claims are a false reflection of reality,” said the country’s leading cleric. Alleging that Wallström’s statements were based on lies, he said that the country’s legal system was legitimate and independent, and based on the Koran and Hadith of Prophet Muhammad. “Our religion protects everyone’s rights in our country, despite the diversity of our resident population. It does not oppress anyone or discriminate between Muslim and non-Muslim. Anyone who claims that women are not granted their rights is unaware of the reality on the ground. Women in our country are given access to all opportunities,” he stated. Other clerics joined in, saying that “an attack on Saudi Arabia is an attack on Islam”.

US presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky came to Wallström’s defence by denouncing the “war on women” in Saudi Arabia and calling for all Americans to boycott the country. “Remember when South Africa was misbehaving? We organized a boycott of South Africa. We should be boycotting Saudi Arabia and not taking money from Saudi Arabia’s government,” Paul said.

Attacks on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record have been gaining momentum in recent months. Some analysts have accused the country’s interior minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, of ruthlessly hounding dissenting bloggers and activists, and arresting many on vague “state terrorism” charges. The investigation, arrest and detention of journalists, athletes, poets, bloggers, activists and tweeters have been on the rise since the minister was appointed in November 2012. A new, strict anti-terrorism law has been enacted in February 2014.

Some analysts cite the case of Waleed Abu al-Khair, the prominent human rights lawyer who founded, and was the director of, the NGO Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA). He was also the recipient of the 2012 Olof Palme Prize for Human Rights for his “strong, self-sacrificing and sustained struggle to promote respect for human and civil rights for both men and women in Saudi Arabia”. He was charged by a specialized criminal court in the capital Riyadh in October 2013 for offences including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler, disrespecting the authorities, offending the judiciary, inciting international organizations against the kingdom and founding an unlicensed organization. In July 2014 he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. He has since been transferred from prison to prison and it is believed that his refusal to recognize and apologize to the trial court were behind his most recent transfer. As a lawyer, he had also defended Raif Badawi in court.

In December 2014, two Saudi women were arrested and detained for nearly a month for defying a ban on females driving. They appeared before a court established to try terrorism cases. Their detention is the longest of female drivers in Saudi history.

These are just some of the high-profile cases that have attracted global attention. International human rights organizations document the cases of countless others, many of whom remain the faceless victims of a system seen as restricting Saudi citizens’ right to free expression in a manner that appeases the ruling establishment.

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