Saudi Arabia: Renewing Repression Under the Mantra of Security

A foreign worker walks past graffiti against the ruling Saudi royal family in the Qatif region of Eastern Province on 25 November 2011. (Photo: AFP - Fayez Nureldine)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, December 5, 2011

Saudi Arabia seems keen to avert further eruptions of dissent on its soil through a combination of new legislation, unfair trials, and an ongoing muzzling of protest.

A recent video posted on YouTube (24/11/11) apparently shows thousands of Saudi demonstrators, defiantly chanting "death to Al Saud" , after four young protesters in Saudia Arabia’s Eastern Province were killed during skirmishes with police. The demonstration preceded an Amnesty International report on Saudi repression released Thursday, exposing a growing dissent that has been largely under-reported.

Amnesty International published a 73-page report titled, “Saudi Arabia: Repression in the Name of Security” on December 1, describing a “new wave of repression in Saudi Arabia” against protesters and reformists under the justification of security. The report updates concerns voiced by the organization on 21 July 2011,
when they obtained and released a leaked copy of the Draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism – a draft law that in effect “legalizes” the authorities’ measures “to persecute peaceful dissent as a terrorist crime.” It tackles three issues of Saudi Arabia’s security apparatus: the Draft Anti-Terror Law; sweeping arrests and unfair trials; and crackdowns.

Successful dissent has been rare in the kingdom. The Al-Saud royal family, backed by a comprehensive security apparatus and rigid clergy, has maintained a firm grip as an absolute monarchy. Political parties and independent social and labor organizations are completely banned. Independent media – whether domestic or foreign – are severely restricted. NGOs and other human rights organizations are not allowed to operate within the country, among other forms of control. Nevertheless, activists and reformers remain and have persisted in contesting the system and call for change over the decades. Such activities demanding political, social, cultural, and economic equality have intensified, no doubt energized by the geopolitical changes and various intifadas rocking the region.

Although the report is disapproving of the Saudi system, the authors take great pains to point out that Saudi Arabia has legitimate security issues. There seems to be a mildness in the criticism and the report concludes by urging the “international community” to prod the Wahhabi state to comply with international law and human rights covenants. This final point by the report does not take into account that the “international community” has been complacent and silent towards Saudi Arabia due to its role in maintaining the regional status quo.

Amnesty’s Report: Legalizing Repression

In light of the growing unrest, Amnesty’s report underscores the authorities’ attempts to “legalize” and “entrench” draconian measures to contain and eliminate these brewing challenges. The report’s aim is “to puncture the wall of secrecy around the gross and widespread human rights violations being committed in Saudi Arabia, and to help stop these violations.”

In terms of questionable legislation, the report notes that the Anti-Terror Law presents “vague and broad definitions of terrorism offences,” particularly the unclear use of “the crime of terrorism” or “terrorist crime.” Arising from this, restrictions are placed on freedom of expression. For example, a person can be punished with 10 years in prison if they describe the King or Crown Prince “as an infidel, question his integrity or defames his trustworthiness.”

Individuals can be held for a period of 120 days without charge or even an undetermined “longer period,” if a court “deems [it] appropriate.” The draft law also gives the Interior Ministry broader powers without judicial or public prosecutor supervision, and widens the scope for the death penalty.

In the second section, the report highlights numerous cases of those detained or have their detention prolonged without charge or trial. Many of those have reported being blindfolded during trial and were denied access to their lawyers during sessions. Some accounts have revealed significant use of torture. In one case, a former detainee describes the use of “an electro-shock baton…applied to his forehead, temples and genitals.”

The final part provides an overview of the crackdowns on recent protests and the various arrests as outlined below.

In a phone interview, Rothna Begum, who was involved in the report, noted that Amnesty International has not been allowed access to Saudi Arabia, except for one time regarding Iraqi refugees. Therefore, they had to rely on corroborated accounts and trends observed of former detainees and their family members, as well as activists and personalities, both foreign and native, within Saudi society.

She pointed out that the last nine months clearly saw an intensification of repression, particularly in the eastern part of the country. Thus, according to Begum, of great concern to Amnesty International is the passage of the draft Anti-Terrorism Law, which, if done, would “entrench and legalize the repression.” She added that the draft law itself is a breach of certain international conventions and customs and even may be “a breach of their own [Saudi] laws.”

Begum acknowledged that Saudi Arabia does not have a codified criminal code and many of the charges utilized are “vague, broad, and sometimes not on a piece of [existent] legislation.”

“These are practices…patterns we’ve seen before…years of unfair trails. [If the law is passed] one will be indefinitely charged. It could be anyone. It captures so many different people and criminalizes dissent,” Begum stated. The vagueness of the law could cause the country to “go down a very serious and dangerous road.”

A fascinating subject the report showcases, which Begum strongly points out, is that the groups of Saudi society affected are diverse. Different political, social, economic, and religious groups have been targeted, from advocates for peaceful reform to former “members of al-Qaeda”. The position of the authorities are unequivocal, any form of dissent or criticism directed towards the ruling authority is, and will not be, tolerated. There seems something Orwellian about the use of the term “terrorist crime.”

In response to the release of the report, the Saudi Embassy in the United Kingdom released a statement saying that the report is based “on inaccurate information.” It makes reference to the threat of terrorism and that the Saudi state has the responsibility “to do everything we can to combat this evil.”

For Begum, the statements by the Saudi authorities are “positive” and “a good step forward” because “they are at least responding.” She elaborated that the Saudi authorities usually ignore such reports, and any attempts by Amnesty International to clarify matters within the country have been fruitless. Such rare responses garner attention from the international media as well as generate discussions within Saudi Arabia through social media forums like Twitter.
Begum ultimately calls attention to the need to pressure Saudi Arabia to sign, ratify, and implement important international conventions, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It is one of the few countries left that is not party to these covenants. She similarly mentioned the need to encourage Saudi Arabia to ratify and implement the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, especially as more accounts unveil a strikingly systematic process of torture and cruel treatment towards detainees.

Saudi Arabia and the 2011 Intifada

Sporadic demonstrations began in January 2011. Hundreds of protesters gathered in Jeddah, located on the coast of the Red Sea, to voice criticisms regarding the city’s failing infrastructure after a series of floods resulted in the death of eleven people. Many were swiftly arrested. Other limited protests in the same month occurred due to increased unemployment.

In early February, 40 women demonstrated in Riyadh to appeal for the release of prisoners held without trial. Days later, on February 11, a group of 10 individuals composed of human rights activists, lawyers, and intellectuals established the Umma Islamic Party, which called for the end to absolute monarchy. All participants were rounded up a week later.

In the same month, protests began appearing in the town of al-Awamiyah on February 17 near the eastern city of Qatif. These protests demanded the release of three political prisoners who had been rounded up two years earlier on 29 March 2009 – they were released three days later. Further protests erupted, imploring for release of additional prisoners.

In response to these growing challenges, the Saudi authorities attempted to stem discontent by announcing an aid package on Wednesday February 23, 2011, worth US$37 billion dollars and directed towards mid to low-income families. Speaking to the BBC, Mai Yamani, scholar-activist and daughter of a former Saudi oil minister, noted that the act “is in many ways viewed as bribery,” as “the oil money [is used] to quieten the people, gain their subservience, silence and submission.”

Furthermore, the events in February ensured that al-Awamiyah and Qatif become focal points for subsequent demonstrations. Qatif, and the surrounding neighborhoods, are located in the Eastern Province – an area lying on top of immense and strategic oil reserves – and have a large religious minority, which, according to Human Rights Watch, has experienced systematic forms of discrimination.

March became a month in which tensions rose even further. On the third or fourth of the month, protests in al-Awamiya and Qatif marched for the release of political prisoners and generally called for comprehensive reform. Modest demonstrations appeared in Riyadh and Hofuf as well. In all these cases, a number of people were summarily detained. Moreover, on March 5, the interior ministry imposed a general ban on protests, marches, and sit-ins, and authorized security forces to use “all means” to enforce the ban. A supporting fatwa was released by the Council of Senior Scholars. Despite the announcement and the fatwa, hundreds of people participated in protests in Qatif on March 9 and 10 which were seemingly met with “percussion bombs” and live gunfire.

A Facebook page was created in the month prior to this promoting “A Day of Rage” on March 11 and demanded the release of political prisoners, an independent judiciary, more rights for women, and an elected ruler. In response, the page was blocked, an overwhelming presence of security forces in Riyadh and other urban centers were evident, and unconfirmed reports stated that one of the administrators of the page was assassinated.
On March 11 itself, protests did occur in Qatif and its surroundings where they have been ongoing for several weeks, while in Jedda and Riyadh, due to the heavy security presence, protests were non-existent. Only one person, Khaled Al-Johani, showed up in the early morning and spoke to the press that gathered. Immediately after he vocalized his frustrations, Al-Johani was picked up by security forces and remains in custody.

Further protests were called for on March 20. Nearly 100 family members of those detained gathered in front of the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Riyadh and attempted to enter the building circled by the security forces. Also, protests in Qatif were initiated against the use of Saudi forces within the Peninsula Defense Shield that were involved in containing protests in neighboring Bahrain.

In April, various acts of dissent continued, in regard to issues of repression, political and economic reform, and solidarity with the Bahraini protesters. Additionally, a civil disobedience campaign to register women in the municipality elections began to highlight the marginalization of women within politics.

Building from these events, May saw a highly publicized movement to defy a prohibition on women’s right to drive. The face of this campaign was Manal Al-Sherif, a women’s rights activist that was detained for driving and was released days later due to the international spotlight on her case. Following her release, Al-Sherif began a movement called “Faraj” that sought the release of political prisoners and others.

The women’s driving campaign culminated on June 17, when about 40 women drove around in defiance. Interestingly enough, no arrests were made that day as it appeared that the police and security forces were “under orders not to intervene”.

Throughout the summer, protests levelled off or were severely under-reported. However, in the past three months demonstrations and crackdowns have flared up, remaining centered around Qatif. In early October, Saudi authorities blamed “outside forces” – a subtle reference to Iran - for the unrest in general, and specifically to a gunfight that resulted in the injury of 11 security personnel and three civilians. The October protests were seemingly sparked after the arrest of a 60 year-old man in al-Awamiya to pressure his activist son to turn himself in.

Protests spilled over into November, with reports of “live fire” being used to dispel protesters. Furthermore, unconfirmed YouTube footage show the use of snipers and, in one case, in which an armored personnel carrier (APC) drives into a crowd of protests. On November 22, 16 men - nine of which are renowned reformists - were given prison sentences by the Specialized Criminal Court ranging from a minimum of five to a maximum of 30 years on various undefined charges of terrorism.

These actions and the deaths of protests at the hands of police have resulted in increased discontent towards authorities and the ruling family. The size and heightened sense of anger seen in this video suggests that the situation may unravel further.

Silence towards Saudi Arabia

Although Amnesty International voiced its concerns over events in Saudi Arabia, the recommendations for changes within the Saudi system appear to be mild. The report takes great pains to acknowledge that Saudi Arabia has security concerns and gives credence to its fight against terrorism. Amnesty International “has repeatedly and unreservedly condemned killings and other abuses by armed groups and individuals in Saudi Arabia, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice in accordance with international standards and without recourse to the death penalty.” By comparison, the abusive acts of the state elicit concern rather than condemnation from the organization.

Moreover, the mildness is underscored in recommendations directed to the UN and international community. They are requested to “urge the Saudi government to fully respect and observe international human rights law and standards in general.”

Saudi Arabia is an essential lynch-pin to the power structure of the region. It is a source of vital oil resources for the world, a major arms-importer for Western countries, and has been heavily involved, with support from the US and Europe, in intervening in a number of uprisings in the region – from Yemen, to Bahrain, to Syria.

There has been virtually no condemnation by influential states on the current developments in the country and a general silence permeates on crackdowns against protests in the Eastern Province. It is highly unlikely that the so-called “international community” will act or pressure Saudi Arabia to follow the recommendations of the Amnesty report.

It has been argued repeatedly by Western “experts” that the monarchies are immune from the uprisings in the region, an assessment that seems to be grossly misleading. Meanwhile, events in Qatif and the Eastern Province continue to simmer and are not likely to end any time soon.
The naming of Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the current interior minister, as heir of the throne suggests more confrontations and tensions are in store. Nayef, reportedly, is a hardliner with close connections to the conservative elite. The current aggressive Saudi foreign policy and intervention it has conducted in Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere can be traced to his office.

It is not a stretch to say that in the near future, the “international community” may be forced to pay attention to what’s happening in Saudi Arabia whether they would like to or not.

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