By William Fisher
As human rights organizations expressed skepticism that detainees recently transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabian custody could receive fair trials and escape torture - and a new study charged that the country's textbooks continue to promote intolerance of other religions - the oil-rich Kingdom put the finishing touches on its new Human Rights Commission.
The new commission - which the government characterizes as an independent rights watchdog -- came into existence last October, but the King has just gotten around to naming its board members so it can begin its work. The body's chairman, Turki Ibn Khaled Al-Sudairi, who previously worked as a state minister and Cabinet member, said there will be no women on the commission's board.
In a related development, Human Rights Watch said that the 15 Saudi detainees transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi custody on May 18 "are unlikely to receive a fair trial and are at risk of torture."
"After being deprived of access to justice for years in U.S. military detention, they may face continued incarceration with no legal process in Saudi Arabia," the organization charged.
The 16 will be jailed upon their return to Saudi Arabia. Some may eventually go on trial if there is evidence against them, or they could be released after a judicial review.
An estimated 100 Saudis are still being held at Guantanamo, some of them for more than four years.
Saudi Arabia recently freed three former Guantanamo Bay detainees after they completed their jail sentences, according to the state news agency, SPA.
The three had been handed over by the US last year. At least five other Guantanamo detainees were freed by Saudi Arabia last year after completing jail sentences.
Meanwhile, the Center for Religious Freedom, part of Freedom House, a nonprofit group in Washington that seeks to encourage democracy, released a new study claiming that intolerance continues to pervade religious education in Saudi public schools.
"It is not hate speech here and there, it is an ideology that runs throughout," according to Nina Shea, the center's director and principal author of the report.
Among examples cited in the study: A first-grade student is taught that "Every religion other than Islam is false"; teachers are instructed to "Give examples of false religions, like Judaism, Christianity, paganism, etc."; fifth graders learn "It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and his prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam."
The study is based on translations of 12 history and religion textbooks obtained from parents of Saudi schoolchildren. The textbooks were used last year in Saudi schools and Saudi-run schools in Washington, London, Paris, and several other cities, the report said.
The results, it concludes, reveal systematic "hatred toward 'unbelievers,' " mainly Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists, but also Shiites and other Muslims who do not believe in the country's orthodox interpretation of Islam.
Saudi authorities say they have been working on revisions to their textbooks for some years. The country's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, said in a statement, "There are hundreds of books that are being revised to comply with the new requirements, and the process remains ongoing."
The new Saudi human rights body is one of many similar groups organized by Middle East governments in the past few years. Egypt, Jordan and Morocco are among the countries that operate such groups. In Libya, an 'informal' human rights group has been organized by the son of the country's ruler, Mu'ammar Gadhafi.
The new Saudi commission operates under the supervision of the king, and is mandated to "protect human rights and create awareness about them ... in keeping with the provisions of Islamic law." The commission's board includes at least 18 full-time members and six part-time members. The king names the board members.
The commission's chairman reported that his group has so far received 400 petitions from the public on various alleged rights violations. Like most of its counterparts in the Middle East, the commission serves in an advisory role and cannot initiate independent investigations of abuses on its own.
The most recent Human Rights report on Saudi Arabia from the US State Department found that " The government's human rights record remained poor overall with continuing serious problems, despite some progress."
It reported human rights violations including "no right to change the government, infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments, beatings and other abuses, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, denial of fair public trials, exemption from the rule of law for some individuals and lack of judicial independence, political prisoners, infringement of privacy rights, significant restriction of civil liberties -- freedoms of speech and press, assembly, association, and movement, no religious freedom, widespread perception of corruption, lack of government transparency, legal and societal discrimination against women, religious and other minorities, and strict limitations on worker rights. "
In Jordan, according to Amnesty International, "Scores of people were arrested for political reasons, including on suspicion of terrorism. Many were brought to trial before the State Security Court (SSC)... and alleged that they had been tortured to confess."
"There were continuing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Women were still subject to legal and other discrimination and inadequately protected against violence within the family. At least 11 people were sentenced to death and 11 were executed. Bomb attacks, apparently carried out to protest against Jordanian government policy on Iraq, targeted civilians," Amnesty said.
Jordan's government-funded National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) recently reported it had received 250 reports of torture between June 2003 and December 2004. It also pointed to the difficulties faced by defendants in proving torture allegations. However, in one case, 10 police officers were sentenced to prison terms of up to 30 months after they were convicted of involvement in the death of a prisoner, the NCHR reported.
Egypt's National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), which is chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been operating since 2003. It has been widely criticized by Egyptian and international human rights organizations for remaining largely silent in the face of the country's widespread and well documented human rights abuses, including torture and death in detention.
Neil Hicks, Director of International Programs for Human Rights First, told us he is "not surprised" that the NCHR has not been more visible. "They will choose their ground carefully when it comes to confronting the authorities. I am hopeful that when the NCHR reports on the events since the presidential election they will be supportive of the judges, and critical of the government's approach to suppressing protests in Cairo in recent weeks. I also hope they will criticize the renewal of the Emergency Law."
He added that government-sponsored human rights bodies in the Middle East and North Africa "are harmless, and can be beneficial. The Moroccan commission seems to have done some real good. It did very little for years, but eventually had a role in pushing the government towards some important human rights reforms."
The existence of government-sponsored human rights bodies may have helped focus more attention on the subject. But in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, there appears to be little correlation between the existence of such agencies and the incidence of human rights abuses. The evidence suggests that private non-governmental organizations are largely responsible for human rights abuses being reported and corrected.