DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Saudi Arabia should halt the intimidation of peaceful activists and enact a written penal code in line with human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday, December 18.
The absolute monarchy has intensified a campaign to silence rights activists since the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011, as new media outlets have provided ways of circumventing censorship, the New York-based watchdog said.
Authorities have intimidated activists by imposing travel bans, firing them from their jobs and detaining and prosecuting them, HRW said, as the oil-rich kingdom fears a spillover of the pro-democracy uprisings that have swept the region over the last three years.
"Saudi authorities think they can use intimidation and prison terms to stop the criticism, but the activists are finding ways to voice their concerns," HRW's Joe Stork said in a statement.
"Saudi activists are using new media to take their government to task for rampant rights abuses," he added.
The Arab Spring uprisings have emboldened some to move beyond online campaigning and organize street demonstrations, HRW said.
Families of detainees have staged small protests in Riyadh and elsewhere, while members of the Shiite minority have taken to the streets in the Eastern Province, denouncing "institutionalized discrimination."
Political and religious figures have circulated petitions to King Abdullah urging him to initiate judicial reforms and release political detainees.
Activists have also launched campaigns for gender equality, urging women to defy "discriminatory practices imposed by Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system," it said.
The system requires women to seek permission from male relatives to do basic things such as leave the country.
Authorities have "harassed and jailed" Samar Badawi for calling on women to challenge the guardianship system, HRW said.
Police have also detained women for participating in an ongoing campaign to defy the globally-unique ban on women driving.
Jeddah-based lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair and Eastern Province activist Fadhil al-Manasif, are on trial on charges including "insulting the judiciary, trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom, and inciting public opinion against the state," it said.
Prominent activists Abdullah al-Hamid, Muhammad al-Qahtani, Sulaiman al-Rashoodi, and Mikhlif al-Shammari, have received long prison terms for "their peaceful pro-reform activism," it added.
The rights group said the lack of a written penal code leaves judges "free to issue sentences based on their own interpretations" of Islamic sharia law, calling for "major judicial reforms."
HRW also called for a new law allowing the formation of independent organizations, and the abolition of laws that "disproportionately interfere with free expression," HRW.
Stork criticized the election of Saudi Arabia in November to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council, saying it "sends the wrong message to local activists facing government sanction for their peaceful human rights work."
On Thursday, December 12, a Saudi judge sentenced political activist Omar al-Saeed to four years in jail and 300 lashes over calling for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia, activists said.
Saudi officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the report. – Rappler.com