Saudi Arabia

Repressive draft penal code shatters illusions of progress 


A leaked draft of Saudi Arabia’s first written penal code falls woefully short of universal human rights standards and exposes the hypocrisy behind Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s promises to position his government as progressive and inclusive, said Amnesty International in a new report. Saudi Arabia’s authorities have not shared the draft penal code for consultation with independent civil society, but a number of Saudi Arabian legal experts have confirmed the authenticity of the leaked draft.

The report, Manifesto for repressionanalyses the leaked draft code revealing how instead of improving the country’s abysmal human rights record as part of the Crown Prince’s reformist agenda, it contravenes international law and codifies existing repressive practices into written law. The draft code criminalizes the rights to freedom of expression, thought and religion and fails to protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It criminalizes “illegitimate” consensual sexual relations, homosexuality and abortion and fails to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. The draft also codifies use of the death penalty as one of the primary punishments and continues to permit corporal punishments such as flogging. The report also highlights recent cases of repression of dissidents, illustrating the dangers of adopting the draft as is.

Alongside its report, Amnesty International is also launching a global campaign today to demand the release of individuals unjustly imprisoned or sentenced to death for exercising their rights to freedom of expression as part of the authorities’ repressive crackdown.





The authorities targeted individuals for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. The Specialized Criminal Court tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms individuals following grossly unfair trials for their peaceful expression or association, or for forming community organizations. Human rights defenders were harassed in prison and faced arbitrary travel bans following their conditional release from prison. Courts resorted to the death penalty following grossly unfair trials, including in cases of individuals who were children at the time of the alleged crime, and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Thousands of residents were subjected to forced evictions in the coastal city of Jeddah. Migrant workers continued to be abused and exploited under the sponsorship system and thousands were arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions, tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and involuntarily returned to their home country as part of a nationwide crackdown on undocumented migrants. The country’s first Personal Status Law came into effect, codifying male guardianship and discrimination against women.


On 27 September, King Salman appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as prime minister, a position previously held by the king, in an exception to the Basic Law of Governance. In March, leading members of the European Parliament issued a statement on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, condemning a mass execution on 12 March and urging the country to establish an immediate moratorium on executions. In July, US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia. Later that month, Saudi Arabia published the Jeddah Communique outlining the strategic partnership between the two countries, which failed to include any human rights commitments. On 6 November in the capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the EU had their second human rights dialogue. The EU raised concerns regarding the steep increase in executions as well as issues related to freedom of assembly and association and the use of travel bans. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the long-running armed conflict in Yemen continued to be implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law (see Yemen entry).

Key issues

The Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) convicted and sentenced at least 15 individuals, both citizens and foreign nationals, to between 15 and 45 years in prison after grossly unfair trials for their peaceful expression or association, including peaceful online speech on Twitter. The SCC sentenced at least two women’s rights activists to unprecedentedly lengthy prison sentences.

The SCC and other courts also continued to impose restrictive conditions on individuals released during the year after serving their sentences, which included travel bans and the closure of their social media accounts.

On 9 August, at an appeal hearing, the SCC sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student and activist, to 34 years in prison to be followed by a 34-year travel ban for her writing and peaceful Twitter activity in support of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The prosecution demanded a harsher punishment after she was initially sentenced to six years in prison. The harsher sentence was based on the discretion of the judge to punish her for “disrupting public order and destabilizing the security and stability of the state” through publishing tweets, citing Articles 34, 38, 43 and 44 of the counter-terrorism law and Article 6 of the anti-cyber crime law.1 After a grossly unfair trial, on 11 October the SCC sentenced 10 Egyptian Nubian men to between 10 and 18 years in prison for organizing a peaceful remembrance event. The men had spent over two years in arbitrary pre-trial detention.

Human rights organizations remained banned under the Law on Associations. Human rights defenders and activists continued to be arbitrarily detained, harassed in detention or subjected to arbitrary travel bans that restrict their freedom of movement. Dozens continued to serve prison terms for their human rights work.

In March, Raif Badawi, a blogger and activist, was conditionally released after serving a 10-year prison sentence for creating an online forum for public debate for which he was accused of insulting Islam. A 10-year travel ban began on his release, as part of his sentence.

Mohammad al-Qahtani, a human rights defender and founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, was denied family contact from October until the end of the year. In May, he was assaulted by another prisoner held with him in the same ward who had mental health problems.

The authorities sentenced to death and executed individuals convicted of murder, robbery, rape, drug smuggling and terrorism-related crimes following grossly unfair trials. In February, the Saudi Human Rights Commission told Amnesty International that the country no longer executed individuals “for crimes committed by minors” and had commuted all such outstanding sentences. However, between June and October, the SCC and another criminal court upheld the death sentences of three young men who were under the age of 18 at the time of the capital crimes.

In the single largest mass execution in recent decades, 81 men – citizens and foreign nationals – were executed on 12 March. According to the Ministry of Interior, those executed were convicted of a range of offences, including terrorism-related crimes, murder, armed robbery and arms smuggling. Some of those executed were also convicted of “disrupting the social fabric and national cohesion” and “participating in and inciting sit-ins and protests”, which describe acts that are protected by the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Of those executed, 41 were from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority.

In November, the authorities executed 20 people for drug-related crimes, the first such executions since the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes in January 2021.

In April, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences against two Bahraini Shi’a men for “terrorism” and protest-related charges. They were arrested on 8 May 2015 and held incommunicado and in solitary confinement for three-and-a-half months. In October 2021, the SCC had sentenced them to death after a grossly unfair trial. In the event that the king ratifies their sentences, they would face the risk of imminent execution.

In March, Abdullah al-Huwaiti, who was arrested when he was 14, was re-sentenced to death by the criminal court in Tabuk city, after the Supreme Court overturned in November 2021 a previous death sentence against him that was handed down in October 2019. In June, an appeals court in Tabuk upheld the death sentence. During his time in detention, Abdullah al-Huwaiti was held in solitary confinement, denied access to a lawyer and forced to “confess” under duress. He was tried on charges that included armed robbery and the murder of a security officer.

From January to October, the authorities subjected thousands of residents, including foreign nationals, to forced evictions in Jeddah as part of a mass demolition and eviction plan to develop the city. A state-aligned media outlet announced on 31 January a compensation scheme for citizens that excluded foreign nationals, who made up 47% of those evicted. Residents were given notice of between one day and six weeks. The project plans had been finalized almost three years earlier, but the authorities failed to engage in genuine consultation with residents, provide adequate notice, announce the amount of compensation or provide it to residents prior to the demolitions.

In July, in a limited reform of the kafala sponsorship system, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development announced two new conditions under which domestic workers are allowed to change employers without the permission of their current employer: if the employee terminates the labour contract during the probation period; and if there is proof that the services of the employee had already been transferred to another employer without the knowledge or consent of the previous employer. However, the new conditions do not protect migrant domestic workers from other abuses that they continued to face, including verbal and physical abuse, passport confiscation and irregular or non-payment of wages. Domestic migrant workers continued to be excluded from protections under the country’s labour law.

The authorities continued their crackdown on individuals accused of violating residency, border and labour regulations through arbitrary arrests, and forcibly returned tens of thousands of Ethiopian migrants solely based on their irregular immigration status (see Torture and other ill-treatment heading below).

According to the Ministry of Interior, between January and November, at least 479,000 foreign nationals were returned to their home country out of 678,000 arrested for “violating labour, residency and border security” regulations. During that same period, 14,511 foreign nationals, most of them Ethiopians and Yemenis, were arrested for crossing the border irregularly from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabian authorities arbitrarily detained Ethiopian men, women and children for up to 18 months in inhumane conditions and tortured and otherwise ill-treated them before forcibly returning them to Ethiopia, most of them between April and May, solely for their irregular immigration status. They were held in overcrowded cells with inadequate access to food, water, sanitation and healthcare in two detention centres prior to their deportation. At least 12 men died.

In March, the Council of Ministers passed a new Personal Status Law, which came into effect in June. The new law, which was not previously codified, enables discrimination against women, including through male guardianship. Only men can be legal guardians under this law, and women must have a male guardian’s permission to marry and are then obliged to obey their husband. Moreover, the law does not give women and men equal rights over matters relating to their children in the event of separation. While the mother is automatically granted custody, the father is designated as the child’s legal guardian without due consideration of the best interests of the child.10 Failure to tackle climate crisis The government had still not announced a new NDC.

Joint statement: Ahead of Khashoggi anniversary, Biden administration should reverse current policy and prioritize human rights in Saudi Arabia

If the Biden administration does not work to secure significant commitments in line with the above recommendations, it would indicate that it has forsaken Jamal’s memory and his vision for a free, just, and democratic Saudi Arabia. The crown prince’s repressive practices and policies are a threat not only to people residing in Saudi Arabia, but to anyone who dares criticize him no matter where they reside, as illustrated by Jamal’s brutal murder.

Photo of Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul – Women’s rights activist and human rights defender is one of the most outspoken women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. She is well-known for her campaigning against the driving ban and the campaign to end the male guardianship system. In 2014, she was detained for 73 days after she attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. Loujain al-Hathloul also went on to stand for election in Saudi Arabia in November 2015 – the first time women were allowed to both vote and stand in elections in the state. However, despite finally being recognized as a candidate, her name was never added to the ballot.

Press Release

G20 leaders, don’t buy the spin: Saudi Arabia’s real changemakers are in jail

November 19, 2020

18 August

Saudi Arabia: Quash 34-year prison sentence for student Salma al-Shehab

11 October

Saudi Arabia: Quash sentences for Egyptian Nubians who organized peaceful remembrance event

9 May

Saudi Arabia: New campaign highlights use of punitive travel bans targeting activists and their families

10 October

Saudi Arabia: Young men face imminent execution despite assurances on re-sentencing juveniles to prison terms

15 March

Saudi Arabia: Mass execution of 81 men shows urgent need to abolish the death penalty

24 May

Saudi Arabia: Halt imminent execution of Bahraini men sentenced after flawed trial

20 June

Saudi Arabia: Arrested at 14, tortured, now faces execution: Abdullah al-Huwaiti

22 June

Saudi Arabia: Mass demolitions and forced evictions marred by violations and discrimination

16 December

Saudi Arabia: ‘It’s like we are not human’: Forced returns, abhorrent detention conditions of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia

9 December

Saudi Arabia codifies male guardianship and gender discrimination