Although not given much publicity in the Western media, Saudi Arabia has been brutally suppressing political dissidents. The monarchy does not allow any form of criticism and has instituted harsh measures to silence any critical voices. As a result of this many human rights activists, bloggers, reformists, academics and religious leaders have been detained by Saudi security forces.
Suppression of political activists began when the regime’s foreign policy pertaining to regional developments was criticized. There was discontent among Saudi activists about the handling of the regime’s Muslim East affairs. The first US war against Iraq in January 1991 coincided with the emergence of reform movements in Saudi Arabia. Organized attempts that were led by religious scholars, academics and activists criticized the kingdom for its pro-American policies and urged reforms of human right standards and political system in the 1990s.
The reform movement gained momentum with the invasions of Afghanistan (October 2001) and Iraq (March 2003) as the Saudi rulers joined Western powers in occupying Muslim lands. Groups and individuals vociferously criticized the kingdom for being under the influence of foreign powers. These criticisms were mostly peaceful in nature except the wave of attacks launched by suspected al-Qaeda militants in 2003 and 2004 that killed 74 security personnel and injured 657.
The Saudi rulers took advantage of these (planned) “terrorist” attacks and used them as an excuse to suppress every reform movement. According to reports by numerous human rights organizations during this period, many activists were arbitrarily arrested or kidnapped by the security forces. Some became victims to extrajudicial killings. Further, many detainees were subjected to torture, inhumane treatment and solitary confinement.
There are many loopholes in the Saudi legal system that give vast powers to security forces and judges. Suspects can be held incommunicado for years without being able to challenge their detention. The Law of Criminal Procedure (LCP) does not allow a detainee to challenge the lawfulness of his or her detention before a court. The LCP allows incommunicado detention for 60 days, but in many cases this is not respected by the security forces, particularly in the pre-trial phase. A suspect may be held for a long time before being presented before a court. During the trial, in many cases the defendant is not allowed to examine witnesses or evidence and present a legal defence. Further, the LCP gives the prosecutor the right to issue arrest warrants and prolong pre-trial detention for up to six months without any judicial review. The LCP also allows statements obtained under duress from suspects to be used in court, according to a report by the Geneva-based human rights organization, al-Karama, titled Sent Behind the Sun: Arbitrary Detention in Saudi Arabia (October 21, 2010).
Dr. Sa‘id Aal Zu‘air is one of the important figures who has suffered from the regime’s crackdown on political activists. He had already served eight years in prison when he was re-arrested in 2004, soon after appearing on al-Jazeera television to discuss the security forces’ handling of al-Qaeda attacks. In a brief phone interview, Dr. Aal Zu‘air criticized the government’s anti-terrorism policies and actions of the security forces. That was enough to land him in jail.
Sheikh Suleiman Nasser al-Alwan is another prominent reformist figure who has been arbitrarily arrested. In April 2004 Sheikh al-Alwan was arrested by the security forces without any warrant and transferred to al-Hayer prison in Riyadh. It later became known that al-Alwan was arrested for his comments against Western influence in the Arabian world and his denunciation of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to a report published by the Islamic Human Right Commission (IHRC), Sheikh al-Alwan is still being held in prison and subjected to ill-treatment and solitary confinement.
Some other Saudi citizens, Shaykh Faris al-Shuwayl al-Zahrani and Shaykh Abdul Aziz al-Anzi, alleged members of al-Qaeda, have also been arrested without warrant and are being held in an unknown locations. Their detention has lasted more than six years without access to legal procedures or representation.
A number of academics and human rights activists were arrested on February 2, 2007 in a massive crackdown campaign. It targeted a group of activists who were planning to create a committee to strengthen the defense of civil and political rights and to urge constitutional reforms. The most prominent figures among those arrested were Dr. Sa‘ud Mukhtar al-Hashimi and Dr. Musa al-Qarni. Dr. al-Hashimi is a medical doctor and a faculty member at King Abdulaziz University and a well-known human rights defender. He has worked to protect the civil and political rights of Saudi citizens and has called for constitutional reforms and democratic rights. Dr. Musa al-Qarni, professor of Islamic law and historian of the Soviet war on Afghanistan, was also arrested. Both of them are still in jail.
In its report submitted to the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, al-Karama highlighted the case of Dr. Suleyman Saleh al-Reshoudi, a 75-year old lawyer and former judge. Dr. al-Reshoudi was arrested from his home in Jeddah. Following more than two years’ detention, his lawyers in 2009 filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior. However, at the time of writing, he is still in prison in solitary confinement.
The situation has deteriorated since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. On February 10, 2011, a day before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, prominent reformist leaders announced the formation of the Islamic Ummah Party, the first political party in Saudi Arabia. Six days later the security forces arrested all the founders of the party. They were later released, after giving assurances in writing that they would refrain from “anti-government activity”. Dr. Abdul Aziz Muhammad al-Wuhaybi, however, was not among those released and remains behind bars.
Shi‘is in Saudi Arabia have traditionally been the most oppressed group in the kingdom, thanks to the rigid Wahhabi ideology adhered to by the Saudi rulers. The Shi‘i population is estimated at between 15–20%, mostly concentrated in the Eastern province, especially in the cities of Qatif and Awwamiya. This is also the region where most of the country’s oil fields are located. Yet the population of the area suffers from high unemployment, and poor health, transportation and education services.
The Shi‘i minority has been severely discriminated against according to the US-based Human Rights Watch report of 2009, Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens. Severe religious restrictions are imposed against the Shi‘is forbidding them from building masjids in order to discourage prayer meetings. Their children are forbidden from learning anything about the Shi‘i madhhab and are taught only the Wahhabi perversion of Islam. In addition, the Shi‘is have faced significant political, economic, legal, educational and social discrimination. “They are often disqualified as witnesses in court, cannot serve as judges in ordinary courts and are excluded from high-ranking government or security posts,” according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Faced with such on-going discrimination, the Shi‘i minority has complained and demanded better rights. There has been periodic unrest in the Eastern Province but the more powerful current began last February. Like other Arabian countries, many street protests have swept the Eastern Province. Shi‘i protesters have demanded greater political and social rights, release of political prisoners and a halt to the operations of Saudi forces to suppress the popular uprising in Bahrain. The Saudi regime has dealt with such protests in a characteristically brutal manner. The Saudi Interior Ministry slammed the latest protests, calling the protesters “a group of outlaws and rioters on motorbikes,” and vowed to use an “iron fist” in dealing with such disturbances.
Since then many Shi‘is have been killed, wounded and arrested. One of the most prominent figures is Sheikh Tawfiq Jaber Ibrahim al-Amr. He was arrested on August 3, 2011 for statements he had made in a Jumu‘ah sermon without being formally charged. He was arrested last February for an earlier sermon in which he called for reforms in Saudi Arabia. This included calls for a constitutional monarchy, religious freedoms and a halt to discrimination in employment. He remains behind bars together with many other Shi‘i activists.
There are no official statistics about the number of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia. Such information is usually gleaned from reports of human rights organizations. Recent estimates show around 30,000 political prisoners in Saudi prisons. With the continuing suppression of political activists, and unwillingness of the Saudi rulers to ease even slightly their total domination of every facet of life in the country, nothing but more round-ups of activists and a continuing increase in the number of political prisoners can be expected. The question, however, is how long will the Saudi monarchy survive if it continues to ignore the masses’ demands for freedom and dignity? The growing mass discontent in the region does not bode well for the House of Saud.