Wednesday, February 29, 2012

SAUDI ARABIA: Cracking Down Quietly

By William Fisher

It is being reported that Saudi Arabia’s aging monarch, King Abdullah, is refusing to discuss the Syrian catastrophe with international colleagues. “There is nothing more to say,” he is being quoted as saying.

Well, OK, given the huge rebuff Syrian President Basher al-Assad handed the Arab League, maybe the king’s position is understandable. On the other hand, the King’s neighborhood is chock-a-block with calamity situations triggered by the so-called Arab Spring.

The King should be a tad relieved. Ongoing violence in Syria and Bahrain, continuing post-revolutionary conflict in Egypt and Yemen – all these situations have tended to draw media attention away from locales that don’t present journalists with enough blood-curdling visuals.

And Saudi is one of those locales where brutality has always trumped justice and human rights – and still does. While far more highly-publicized transgressions are pervading the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi has quietly put in place a carrot and stick strategy in an effort to keep the country stable.

The carrots have consisted of generous cash stipends for every Saudi family and the availability of more government jobs and more funds for job training. The sticks have come from the arsenal brutally used by every Middle East dictator in memory.

In March, Saudi Arabia announced that it would not allow any demonstrations or sit-in protests in the country that the government said are aimed at undermining the Kingdom’s security and stability.

“Laws and regulations in the Kingdom totally prohibit all kinds of demonstrations, marches and sit-in protests as well as calling for them as they go against the principles of Shariah and Saudi customs and traditions,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement. The ministry said such demonstrations not only breach the Kingdom’s law and order but also encroach on the rights of others.

Saudi Arabia has blamed an unnamed foreign power for clashes that took place in its oil-rich Eastern Province in which it says 14 people were injured.

Among the people, and largely under the press radar, there appears to be a substantial desire for more human rights. Many of these demands are coming from women who want to seek office and vote, women who want the right to drive, and women who are frustrated with their roles as men’s property.

The Kingdom’s minority Shia population says they suffer from widespread discrimination in housing, top government and private sector jobs, and access to finance.

The King has not hesitated to use the stick part of his carrot-and-stick strategy. He has jailed hundreds of citizens, including many journalists and bloggers. It has long been well documented that Saudi jailers practice torture of prisoners, as do most of the nations of the Middle East-North Africa region. Men and women detained by the Security Forces are likely to lack lawyers and even less likely to experience anything that could pass for due process. Defendants frequently languish in jail for long periods before they are tried.

The current poster-child for Saudi repression is an example. Khaled al-Johani is a 42-year-old Saudi teacher who was arrested in March 2011 over alleged support for anti-regime protests in Riyadh.

He was arrested on charge of supporting demonstrations, being present at the site of a planned protest, and talking to the foreign press "in a manner that harmed the reputation of the Kingdom," according to Amnesty.

The London-based human rights group released a statement late on Wednesday, condemning Johani’s trial earlier in the day as "utterly unwarranted."

The statement further urged Saudi authorities to release the jailed teacher
"immediately and unconditionally.”

He "shouldn't be standing trial in any court for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression and assembly," Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Director Phillip Luther stated.

On March 11, 2011, the Saudi regime launched a massive clampdown to prevent a planned "Day of Rage" protests, demanding democratic reform in the Persian Gulf monarchy.

Johani was apparently the only protester who was able to reach the location of the planned rally and was arrested minutes after he talked to BBC Arabic about the lack of freedoms in Saudi Arabia, according to the statement.

Amnesty said the 42-year-old father of five, including a six-month old who was born during his detention, is being tried at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, a court established to deal with terrorism charges.

The statement said that Johani has so far been denied legal representation, though the judge during Wednesday's hearing said he would be allowed to appoint one "within a week."

Johani's trial will resume in April, it added.

Finally, Saudi Arabia continued its refusal to register a human rights organization, the Saudi Society of Labor. It has been trying unsuccessfully to register since 2007. Its mission is to protect the rights of workers, tackle unemployment in Saudi Arabia, improve and develop the performance of Saudi workers, activate labor unions while adhering to the Kingdom’s laws, empower the female workforce, and offer foreign language courses and computer training.

Despite the fact that the Society has been denied permission to legally register, it reportedly has now more than 4,000 members and has developed an online forum,, in which members discuss job-related issues.

At the end of 2008, the founders of the Society complained to the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR). The NCHR advised the founders to wait until the establishment of a commission which will specialize in regulating civil society organizations. To date, no such commission has been formed.

According to Saudi law, civil societies are not allowed to form or conduct activities without prior authorization. Although permission to register was granted to the semi-official Saudi Human Rights Society, this has not been the case for independent human rights groups such as the Saudi Society of Labor, Human Rights First Society, and the Legal Support Society.

Finally, the US has moved to strengthen its alliance with Saudi Arabia, signing an agreement to sell F-15 fighter jets to the desert Kingdom.