(Geneva, July 3, 2018) – The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has published a communication sent to the Saudi authorities on December 22, 2017, expressing their “very serious concern about […] a pattern of widespread and systematic arbitrary arrests and detention of persons, including human rights defenders, for peacefully exercising their human rights to freedom of expression, belief, assembly and association”.
The communication names 15 individuals whose cases were submitted by Alkarama to the UN Special Procedures, including nine members of the now banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), as well as blogger Raef Badawi, human rights defenders Jaber Al Amri, Issa Al Nukheifi and Fahdel Al Manasif, and scholar Salman Al Odah, along with his brother Khaled Al Odah.
The UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression (SRFRDX), human rights defenders (SRHRD), freedom of religion or belief (SRFRDR) and the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism (SRCT), as well as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) reminded Saudi Arabia of its obligation as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”. In light of this, they reiterated their previous recommendations calling for the immediate release of all victims named in the communication. They also requested that the government provide information on measures taken to bring counter-terrorism and security related legislation into line with international human rights standards.
The communication was published shortly after the report of the former SRCT following his visit to Saudi Arabia, as well as a resolution by the European Parliament on human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. Both strongly condemned the use of vague and wide-ranging legislation to prosecute and sentence human rights defenders, with the latter going as far as to suggest that the EU delegation “raise the issue of the membership of states with questionable human rights records” at the 38th session of the HRC.
Despite mounting international criticism, in their reply to the communication, dated March 22, 2018, the Saudi authorities failed to address the issues raised by the UN experts. Instead, they argued that the actions taken against the individuals listed are in line with their international human rights obligations. This casts serious doubts as to their commitment to addressing endemic problems such as the use of counter-terrorism legislation to stifle peaceful activism, and the methodical use of arbitrary detention and arrests.
What is more, since May 15, 2018, the Saudi authorities have imprisoned at least 12 prominent human rights defenders. This includes women’s rights activists who campaigned for the driving ban to be lifted and for the abolition of the male guardianship system. While just last Sunday, the Saudi authorities used the image of women being issued driving licenses to present an image of a modernising state, many of the women they claim to have empowered remain detained on account of having demanded more substantive reforms.
During the same period, on May 24, 2018, the Saudi government forcibly disappeared ACPRA co-founder Mohammed Al Bajadi, who had been released after serving five years in prison. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown to date. More recently, around June 12, 2018, officials also re-arrested former ACPRA member Omar Al Saeed.
On June 27, the OHCHR issued a statement expressing concern over Al Bajadi’s disappearance, as well as the arrest of the women’s human rights defenders. OHCHR urged “the Saudi government to show a true commitment to improve its human rights record by taking a more progressive stance”. It added that “[t]he first step towards demonstrating such commitment is to free human rights defenders who remain in prison solely as a result of working to advance the enjoyment of rights for all”.
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