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May 24, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Record of Torturing Those Who Dare to Critique It

The U.N. committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the Convention Against Torture has released its report on Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, it is “extremely concerned” by reports that the Saudi government has sought to punish human rights defenders. The report’s lengthy list of recommendations align with those of Human Rights First on the country’s use of torture, inhumane detention conditions, and its targeting of human rights defenders.

In April Human Rights First urged President Obama to raise human rights concerns with the Saudi government during his visit there, calling for the release of wrongfully detained prisoners and Saudi human rights activists. We specifically highlighted the cases of Waleed Abu al-Khair, Raif Badawi, Ashraf Fayadh, Dr. Abdulkareem Al Khoder, and Abdulrahman Al Hamid, many of whom are mentioned by name in the U.N. committee’s report.

These human rights defenders, bloggers, and artists have been subjected to severe mistreatment, including lengthy prison sentences for supporting freedom of expression and standing up for the rule of law. All of them are currently imprisoned.

The U.N. committee highlighted that the public lashing of Badawi constitutes torture, and called on the Saudi government to review Badawi’s case to invalidate the part of his sentence that involves corporal punishment, and to ensure he receives prompt medical care and rehabilitation.

The committee recommended that the Saudi government should consider revising its overbroad counterterrorism law, and indicated that it was “particularly concerned” about Al Khoder’s sentence under this law for nonviolent human rights advocacy. Human Rights First has previously observed that these kinds of sweeping counterterrorism laws are counterproductive.

The committee also expressed concern about the lack of accountability for allegations of torture. It noted that the Saudi government did not indicate whether any prosecutions of officials have taken place for Al-Khair’s reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

President Obama reportedly raised human rights during meetings with Saudi government leaders during his Gulf trip, but he did not publicly call for the release of these jailed activists.

As the administration turns to the GCC Summit outcomes and next steps on security cooperation and joint efforts to counter violent extremism in the Middle East, human rights should not be left by the wayside. U.S. officials should press Saudi Arabia to end its crackdown on civil society. Releasing these wrongfully imprisoned activists would be a significant step.