the repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly continued. the specialized criminal court handed down severe prison sentences to individuals for their work defending human rights and expressing dissenting opinions. Human rights defenders, government critics and other political activists were among those arbitrarily detained, prosecuted or sentenced. women human rights defenders were subject to court-imposed travel bans following their release on parole. the courts used the death penalty extensively and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation under the country’s sponsorship system, with tens of thousands arbitrarily detained and subsequently deported. Prison authorities violated the right to health of human rights defenders and others imprisoned after grossly unfair trials.
In January, the foreign minister announced the end of the rift that had pitted Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other states against Qatar since 2017, and that Saudi Arabia would restore diplomatic relations with Qatar.
In July, the European Parliament strongly condemned the continued use of the death penalty in cases of juvenile offenders and called for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defenders. on september 27, saudi arabia and the eu held their first human rights dialogue, which took place in brussels, belgium. the eu raised concerns about freedom of expression in saudi arabia and raised several cases of individual saudi human rights defenders.
The Saudi-led coalition in the long-running armed conflict in Yemen continued to be implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law (see entry on Yemen).
freedom of expression and association
following a brief pause in the trials of human rights defenders and dissidents during the g20 summit chaired by saudi arabia in november 2020, the authorities resumed punitive trials, in particular before the specialized criminal court (scc) , of any person who expresses opinions critical of the government or opinions contrary to those of the government on the socio-economic or political evolution of the country. the scc sentenced people to harsh prison terms for their human rights work and the expression of dissenting views, including on twitter. it also imposed restrictive conditions on those released after serving their sentences, including a travel ban and ordered the closure of their social media accounts.
in march, the scc increased the 14-year prison sentence already being served by mohammad al-otaibi, a founding member of the union for human rights, an independent human rights organization, by a total of three years. his sentence was based solely on his human rights work, including the formation of a human rights organization.
in april, the scc sentenced abdulrahman al-sadhan, who works for the saudi arabia red crescent society in the capital riyadh, to 20 years in prison and a subsequent travel ban of the same duration. The evidence presented against him consisted of satirical and critical tweets about the government’s economic policies and way of governing, for which he was accused, among other things, of “preparing, storing and sending whatever violates public order and religious values” and “offend state institutions and officials and spread false rumors about them.”
human rights defenders
Human rights defenders continued to be arbitrarily detained, sentenced after grossly unfair trials, or silenced after parole.
in february, prominent human rights defender loujain al-hathloul was conditionally released after serving her sentence in prison.1 in june, human rights defenders nassima al-sada and samar badawi were also conditionally released. the conditions imposed included court-imposed bans on travel, public speaking, resuming human rights work and the use of social media, which violate their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the country and freedom of movement outside the country.
Between January and July, the SCC unfairly sentenced five human rights defenders to prison terms ranging from six to 20 years. some of them had recently finished serving long prison sentences in previous cases on similar charges related to their peaceful exercise of human rights.2 for example, in april the scc convicted mohammad al-rabiah, a human rights defender , writer and women’s rights, to six years in prison followed by a six-year travel ban when she had already served almost three years in prison after her arrest in May 2018 as part of the crackdown on women’s rights defenders humans.
in january, authorities announced major reforms regarding the death penalty, including a moratorium on executions for drug-related offences, but took no formal steps to amend saudi arabia’s drug and drug control law nor clarify how the moratorium will be carried out. effect .
in february, in a positive development in the cases of ali al-nimr, abdullah al-zaher and dawood al-marhoun, three youths arrested as children, the scc commuted their death sentences and resentenced them to 10 – years in prison, including time served3. the new sentence followed a prosecutor’s order in August 2020 to review the three men’s death sentences. ali al-nimr and abdullah al-zaher were released in October and November, respectively, after serving 10 years in prison.
The judiciary resumed the imposition of discretionary death sentences (ta’zir) against people convicted of crimes not punishable by death under sharia (Islamic law). On June 15, the authorities executed Mustafa al-Darwish, a young Saudi Arab from the Shia minority who was convicted on charges related to his alleged involvement in violent anti-government protests.4
rights of immigrants
The labor ministry introduced limited reforms to its sponsorship (kafala) system in March, easing restrictions on some migrant workers to transfer jobs without their employers’ permission under certain conditions. conditions include failure to pay salary for three consecutive months; expiration of the employee’s work permit; and when an employer fails to attend two litigation hearings if a labor dispute has arisen. the reforms also include allowing migrant workers to apply for an exit permit without their employer’s permission, but did not abolish the exit permit. Under these conditions, migrant workers remained tied to their employers, who retained considerable control over their rights and freedom of movement. migrant domestic workers continued to be excluded from protections under the country’s labor laws.
Throughout the year, authorities continued to crack down on migrants accused of violating labor, border security, and residency laws and regulations through mass arbitrary detentions. the interior ministry announced that in november and december alone, at least 117,000 men and women were arrested for violating these regulations, and more than 2,400 people, mostly ethiopian and yemeni immigrants, were arrested for crossing the border into saudi arabia without valid visas . . subsequently, some 73,000 men and women were deported to their country of origin.
in april, amnesty international documented the detention of at least 41 sri lankan women, all migrant domestic workers, for up to 18 months in riyadh’s exit 18 deportation detention center, pending their repatriation. many of the women had been detained due to their immigration status under the kafala system. the reasons included the expiration of their work permit, their employer’s failure or refusal to obtain an exit permit, and their attempt to escape an abusive employer to travel back to their countries without an exit permit. following international and national attention, all the women were repatriated in May.5
In July, a state-aligned media outlet announced that qiwa, a platform run by the ministry of human resources, had set a maximum quota for hiring Indian, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Ethiopian citizens. While this decision stated that it only applied to newly hired workers or workers who had changed their permits to new entities, Reuters and Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi authorities had effectively terminated the contracts or stopped renewing the contracts of dozens of workers. Yemenis who were already employed in institutions in the country.
rights of women and girls
on 8 february, crown prince mohammad bin salman announced major legislative developments, including a new personal status law, on saudi arabia’s official press agency. the authorities made no further announcements regarding this legislative reform and it was not clear when the new law would come into force. women continued to face severe discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.
In May, a state-aligned media outlet reported that the shura council renewed discussions to amend the nationality law to grant permanent residency, without cost or lengthy procedures, to children of Saudi Arabian women married to foreign citizens.
right to health
As of September, according to the health ministry, at least 42 million doses of covid-19 vaccines had been administered. according to reuters, this represented around 61% of the country’s population, assuming each person had received two doses.
A state-aligned media outlet reported that as of April, about 68% of detainees in state security prisons had been vaccinated against covid-19, and that work was being done to vaccinate the remaining inmates who they had given their consent. in cases where prisoners tested positive for covid-19, prison authorities isolated them in individual cells. however, prisoners were also denied contact with their families during their isolation. in one case, mohammad al-qahtani, a human rights defender and founding member of the now-dissolved saudi association for civil and political rights (acpra), was held incommunicado and not allowed to speak to his family for 14 days after he tested positive for covid-19 in April.6
People who needed urgent medical attention continued to be imprisoned without adequate medical attention or treatment.
mohammad al-khudari, an 83-year-old Palestinian and retired surgeon, politician and writer, whose health was deteriorating in prison, was deprived of adequate medical treatment for multiple health problems, including cancer, incontinence, herniated discs, frailty bone and general fragility. The SCC sentenced him on August 8 to 15 years in prison (with half the sentence suspended due to his age) after a massive trial that included his son. the sentence was reduced after an appeal session on December 28 to six years in prison (with a three-year suspension). the trial was marred by serious violations of due process.7
cleric salman alodah has been in solitary confinement since his arrest in september 2017. according to his son, his health had deteriorated during detention, leading him to lose some of his vision and hearing. charged with capital offences, salman alodah had faced more than 10 trial sessions since his trial began in august 2018, including three sessions in 2021 alone, all of which were postponed for months without giving a clear reason, which took a huge mental and emotional toll on him and his loved ones.
death in custody
in october, cleric musa al-qarni was attacked and killed in detention by another inmate in his cell at dhahban prison near jeddah. According to the sources, his face, skull and ribs were crushed and fractured, and he suffered a hemorrhage in the brain. the authorities did not conduct an investigation into the death of him .8
right to privacy
In July, the Project Pegasus investigation revealed the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets of the nso group’s Pegasus spyware, including Saudi journalists, human rights defenders, and family members of dissidents. amnesty international forensic evidence confirmed that family members of saudi journalist jamal khashoggi were attacked with pegasus software before and after his murder in turkey on october 2, 2018 by saudi agents, despite repeated denials by the nso group Pegasus spyware was installed on the phone of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, four days after his murder. his wife, hanan elatr, was repeatedly attacked with the spyware between september 2017 and april 2018, and his son abdullah was also selected as a possible target.9
- “saudi arabia: free women’s rights defender loujain al-hathloul long ago”, 10 february
- saudi arabia’s post-g20 crackdown on expression: resumption of the repression of freedom of expression, human rights activism and use of the death penalty (index: mde 23/4532/2021), August 3
- “ saudi arabia: Withdrawal of death sentences for three Shiite activists arrested as teenagers are a welcome move”, February 8
- saudi arabia: further information: young saudi executed after trial extremely unjust: mustafa al-darwish (index: mde 23/4453/2021) , july 14
- “saudi arabia: dozens of sri lankan women unjustly detained for months due to abusive prison system kafala”, april 15
- “saudi arabia: fears for the health of those imprisoned for human rights defender held incommunicado tion”, April 16
- saudi arabia: 83-year-old detainee needs urgent medical attention: dr. mohammed al-khudari, dr. hani al-khudari (index: mde 23/4758/2021), 22 september
- saudi arabia: impunity for the death of a cleric in custody illustrates contempt for the prisoners’ rights (index: mde 23/5105/2021), December 15
- “a massive data leak reveals that spyware from the israeli group nso is used to attack activists , journalists and political leaders around the world”, July 18