Human rights in Saudi Arabia

Human rights in Saudi Arabia are based on sharia religious laws under rule of the Saudi royal family. Many political freedoms as described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not exist; it is alleged that capital punishment and other penalties are often given to suspected criminals without due process. The government of Saudi Arabia has also been criticized for its oppression of religious and political minorities, homosexuality, and women. Although major human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concern about the states of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom denies that any human rights abuses take place. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ratified the International Convention against Torture in October 1997 according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Human rights of Saudi Arabia are specified in article 5 of the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia. The first independent human rights organization in Saudi Arabia, The National Society for Human Rights was established in 2004

In 2008, the Shura Council ratified the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

Corporal and capital punishment; right to representation

Saudi Arabia is one of a number of countries where courts continue to impose corporal punishment, including amputations of hands and feet for robbery, and lashings for lesser crimes such as "sexual deviance" and drunkenness. The number of lashes is not clearly prescribed by law and is varied according to the discretion of judges, and ranges from dozens of lashes to several thousand, usually applied over a period of weeks or months. In 2002, the United Nations Committee against Torture criticized Saudi Arabia over the amputations and floggings it carries out under its interpretation of Sharia. The Saudi delegation responded defending "legal traditions" held since the inception of Islam 1400 years ago and rejected interference in its legal system.

Saudi Arabia also engages in capital punishment, including public executions by beheading. Beheading is the punishment for murderers, rapists, drug traffickers and armed robbers, according to strict interpretation of Islamic law. In 2005, there were 191 executions, in 2006 there were 38 and as of July 2007 there were already 102 including three women. A spokesman for Saudi Arabia's National Society for Human Rights has said that numbers of executions are rising because crime rates are rising, that prisoners are treated humanely, and that the beheadings deter crime, saying, ""Allah, our creator, knows best what's good for his people...Should we just think of and preserve the rights of the murderer and not think of the rights of others?"

In 1997, Human Rights Watch examined the case of Abd al-Karim Mara`i al-Naqshabandi, who was executed after being convicted of practicing witchcraft against his employer. The organization concluded that the Saudi legal system "fails to provide minimum due process guarantees and offers myriad opportunities for well-connected individuals to manipulate the system to their advantage."

Women's rights

Saudi women face severe discrimination in many aspects of their lives, including education, employment, and the justice system and are clearly regarded as inferior to men. Although they make up 70% of those enrolled in universities, women make up just 5% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, the lowest proportion in the world. The treatment of women has been referred to as "gender apartheid." Implementation of a government resolution supporting expanded employment opportunities for women met resistance from within the labor ministry, from the religious police, and from the male citizenry. These institutions and individuals generally claim that according to Sharia a woman's place is in the home caring for her husband and family. It is a country where culture and religion make women live mostly restricted segregated lives. There is also segregation inside their own homes as some rooms have separate entrances for men and women.

In the legal system, women face discrimination as the criminal laws of Saudi Arabia adhere to strict Islamic precepts. An example of this is the requirements for testifying in criminal proceedings; The witness must be deemed sane, the age of an adult, and a Muslim. Non-Muslims may not testify in criminal court. Women may not testify unless it is a personal matter that did not occur in the sight of men. The testimony of a woman is not regarded as fact but as presumption. The reasons women are forbidden to testify in proceedings are (quote):

  1. Women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony.
  2. Women do not participate in public life, so they will not be capable of understanding what they observe.
  3. Women are dominated completely by men, who by the grace of God are deemed superior; therefore, women will give testimony according to what the last man told them.
  4. Women are forgetful, and their testimony cannot be considered reliable.

As a result of these laws women are particularly vulnerable in cases of assault and/or rape, as their testimony is treated as a presumption, while that of their attackers is accepted as fact. In some cases, victims of sexual assault are punished on the grounds that they should not be alone with unrelated males. It happened recently when a woman, victim of a gang rape, was sentenced by a Saudi court to six months in prison and 200 lashes for violating laws on segregation of the sexes, as she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack. This case attracted the attention of the UN which expressed its concerns regarding the social attitudes and the system of male guardianship which deter women from reporting crimes and lead to a patriarchal system. Women are therefore prevented from escaping abusive environments because of their lack of autonomy and economic independence, practices surrounding divorce and child custody, the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women, and inconsistencies in the application of laws and procedures. Women are not allowed to drive or ride bicycles on public roads in large cities. However, some do so on rural roads illegally. Women are allowed to fly aircraft, though they must be chauffeured to the airport.

Women's rights are at the heart of calls for reform in Saudi Arabia - calls that are finally challenging the kingdom's political status quo and the pressure from Western governments and from institutions such as the UN helps speed up the process. Local and international women's groups are also pushing governments to respond, taking advantage of the fact that some rulers are eager to project a more progressive image to the West. The presence of powerful businesswomen-still a rare breed-in some of these groups helps get them heard. Prior to 2008, women were not allowed to enter hotels and furnished apartments without a chaperon or "mahram." With a 2008 Royal Decree, however, the only requirement needed to allow women to enter hotels are their national ID cards, and the hotel must inform the nearest police station of their room reservation and length of stay.Encouraged by the recent advances in women's rights, advocates for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia - the only country in the world that prohibits female drivers - have collected more than 3,000 signatures hoping that the driving ban will also be lifted this year (2008) by King Abdullah. But the chances for this to happen are still small in Saudi Arabia's deeply religious and patriarchal society, where many believe that allowing women the right to drive could lead to Western-style openness and an erosion of traditional values.

According to the CIA world factbook, 70.8% of females are literate, in comparison to 84.7% literacy rates in males.

Slavery and human trafficking

In 1962, Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery, freeing about 10,000 slaves out of an estimated 15,000-30,000. Slavery was ended by neighboring Qatar in 1952, the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962, the UAE in 1963, South Yemen in 1967, and Oman in 1970. Some of these states, such as Yemen, were British protectorates. The British left South Yemen without forcing it to give up slavery, but did pressure the UAE into giving it up. In 2005, Saudi Arabia was designated by the United States Department of State as a Tier 3 country with respect to trafficking in human beings. Tier 3 countries are "Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so."

Gay rights

Although not uncommon and hidden, all sexual activity outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage is illegal. Punishment for homosexuality, cross-dressing, or being involved with anything that hints at the existence of an organized gay community will range from imprisonment, deportation (for foreigners), lashes, and sometimes execution.


By law, all Saudi citizens who are infected with HIV or AIDS are entitled to free medical care, protection of their privacy and employment opportunities. Yet, most hospitals will not treat patients who are infected, and many schools and hospitals are reluctant to distribute government information about the disease, because of the strong taboos and stigma that are attached to how the virus can be spread .

Until the late 1990s, information on HIV/AIDS was not widely available to the public, but this has started to change. In the late 1990s, the government started to recognize World AIDS Day, and allowed information about the disease to be published in newspapers. The number of people living in the kingdom who were infected was a closely guarded secret. However, in 2003 the government announced the number of known cases of HIV/AIDS in the country.

Any foreigner found to be infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS (or, indeed, any other serious medical condition), is deported to their country of origin. Condoms are available in hospitals and pharmacies, and in some supermarkets as well.

Political freedoms

Freedom of speech and the press are restricted to forbid criticism of the government or endorsement of "un-Islamic" values. Trade unions and political organizations are banned. Public demonstrations are forbidden. The Saudi Government is an active censor of Internet reception within it's borders. Recently the internet has become a tool for dissent, however the arrest of prominent Saudi blogger and reformist Fouad al-Farhan has been seen as somewhat of a crackdown on online dissent. Fouad al-Farhan has been jailed in solitary confinement since December, 2007, without charges, after criticizing Saudi religious, business and media figures.

Political parties are banned, but some political dissidents were freed in the 1990s on the condition that they disband their political organizations. Only the Green Party of Saudi Arabia remains, although it is an illegal organization. The 1990s marked a slow period of political liberalization in the kingdom as the government created a written constitution, and the advisory Consultative Council, the latter being an appointed delegation of Saudi scholars and professionals that are allowed to advise the king.

Religious freedoms

Saudi Arabia forbids missionary work by any religion other than Wahabi/Salafi Islam. Saudi religious police recently detained Shiite pilgrims participating in the Hajj, allegedly calling them "infidels in Mecca".

Jewish, Christian or Hindu houses of prayer are not allowed. Unofficially the government acknowledges that many of the foreign workers are Christian and on Aramco civilian compounds, foreign Christians are generally allowed to worship in private homes or even hold services at local schools provided that it is not spoken of in public. This is a degree of unofficial tolerance that is not given to Judaism, Hinduism or atheism.

Officially, the government can search the home of anyone and arrest or deport foreign workers for owning religious icons and symbols, e.g. a Bible, or rosary. Yet, this generally does not occur on the Aramco compounds and the most common policy for foreign Christians is one without public acknowledgement. The government tolerates the presence of Christian workers as long as they do not publicly espouse or express their religion. Christian religious services are generally permitted to occur on Aramco compounds, but public displays of non-Islamic religions symbols, even Christmas decorations, can get foreign workers into legal trouble.

"Freedom of religion does not exist," the U.S. State Department's 1997 Human Rights Report on Saudi Arabia states. "Islam is the official religion, and all citizens must be Muslims. The government prohibits the public practice of other religions."

However, at the U.N. Third Millennium Summit in New York City, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz defended Saudi Arabia's position on human rights, saying "It is absurd to impose on an individual or a society rights that are alien to its beliefs or principles."

In and before February 2004, the official website of the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism stated that visas would be denied to "Jewish people". This language was removed after a complaint was lodged against the government by a US Government representative, who suggested that the US should not issue visas to Saudi nationals until the Saudi government reversed its decision to bar members of certain religious groups from entry. The Saudi government subsequently changed the language on their Web site. A Saudi government official was quoted as saying that the exclusion mentioned on the Web site was "a mistake", and stated that the kingdom would not deny visas to anyone on the basis of their religion. Israeli passport holders or holders of passports that have Israeli arrival/departure stamps are still barred.

Foreigners must conform to local practices in public. Conservative dress is expected, especially for women who travel to rural areas. Shops and restaurants close five times a day for prayer, and public displays of foreign religious or political symbols are not tolerated. During Ramadan eating, drinking, or smoking in public during daylight hours is prohibited. Foreign schools are often required to teach a yearly introductory segment on Islam.

Reactions of the West

Human Rights activists have suggested that the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western European countries have been hypocritical due to their strong condemnation of human rights record of Saddam Hussein (see Iraq War) but their complete silence regarding the unsatisfactory human rights record in Saudi Arabia ">}}. Human rights activists have noted that many Western governments have oil interests in Saudi Arabia and have a vested interest in protecting the status quo in Saudi Arabia because the Saudi Royal family has been so favorable to the West regarding the supply of oil, supporting the war on terror, and opposing anti-American states like Iran.">}}.

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