Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Human Rights: Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses under scrutiny

London-based Amnesty International issued a report, criticizing human-rights abuses in Saudi Arabia since the advent of anti-terrorism measures in 2001. But some Saudis said their government is locked in a bitter battle against terrorism, and is doing the best it can.

Amnesty International slammed Saudi Arabia's human-rights record, arguing that under the pretext of defending national security, Saudi police had arrested thousands, holding many arbitrarily and in secret.

What the Saudi government says

Veteran Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef ben Abdel Aziz defended his country's record in a speech to Saudi security forces, saying that terrorists, manipulated by outside forces, were killing their compatriots, and that it is vital to fight back whatever the cost.

"It is distressing to see the sons of our nation fighting against their own country and their religion. They are agents of outside forces. Even if many do not know it," he argued. "We fight with our hearts and give our lives to defend our nation no matter what the cost, and our martyrs will be blessed for their sacrifice," he said.

Earlier this month, a Saudi criminal court tried and convicted more than 300 al-Qaida militants, sentencing one man to death. Saudi officials had been reluctant to try terrorists in court until recently, and legal proceedings are still not open to the public.

Saudi King Abdullah initiated a program to "rehabilitate" terrorists, which he dubbed the "misguided faction," back in 2005. Many 'repentant' former terrorists have reportedly been released back into society.

Many of those convicted, recently, were sentenced to house arrest in their hometowns, given travel bans, and or fines, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

What Amnesty International says

Amnesty International said the Saudi interior ministry arrested 9,000 terrorism suspects between 2003 and 2007 and more than 3,100 are still being held.

Amnesty's Lamri Chirouf said many arrests are arbitrary and some are clearly abusive.

"Any act can be seen to be a terrorist act or supporting terrorism act ... Thousands of people are detained in Saudi Arabia," he said. "These thousands can be explained along a spectrum: at one end are people connected to violent acts that have led to deaths and kidnappings between 2003 and 2007, but these people are being held without [being] given justice. For years, now, they have not been given any facilities to challenge the legalities of their detention, to have legal assistance or to be tried in an open and transparent manner," he added.

Chirouf also complained the Saudi government has arrested many intellectuals, merely for criticizing the practice of arbitrary detentions.

"At the other end of the spectrum are lawyers, journalists, writers, university professors who have said to hold people like that is wrong, and that is a failure of the government's human rights obligations, and for saying that, they have been seen to be either sympathizers of terrorism or terrorists themselves and are themselves detained in solitary confinement, none of them is allowed to do anything," he explained. "So, no one is safe from anti-terrorism measures, because they are devoid of human rights safeguards that the U.N. requires," he said.

Claims exaggerated, some analysts say

Editor-in-Chief Jamal al Kashoggi of the Saudi daily al Watan insisted the complaints by Amnesty International are exaggerated.

"Basically, I think they went too far in saying there is human-rights abuse. They mixed up between political prisoners or prisoners of conscience and terrorists. The hundreds that have been arrested in Saudi Arabia in the last five to six years: many of these are terrorists," he said. "They are being held by Saudi laws which allow the government to arrest suspected individuals for up to six months and then if there is a security reason, they can extend their arrest. Sometimes, the government cannot be transparent for security reasons, because we are right in the middle of a war against terrorism," he added.

Kashoggi said Saudi Arabia is a tribal, family-oriented society, and that many large families ask the government not to publicize the detention or trial of a family member, so as not to embarrass the family.

University of Paris Political Science Professor Khattar Abou Diab points out the Saudi regime is founded on Islamic Shariah law, and that one should be "careful in comparing it with other regimes and legal systems across the world."

He emphasized many positive improvements have been initiated by King Abdallah during Saudi Arabia's war on terror.

He said that the creation of an independent human-rights commission, the system of rehabilitating prisoners, and the initiation of a process of recourse against the morality police, indicate progress in Saudi Arabia, even if the Saudi system is not ideal.

Despite the mitigated picture, Abou Diab suggested there is room for improvement, long term, with the creation of more non-governmental organizations, greater citizen participation in government, and less discrimination between different sects.

Published with the permission of Voice of America