• Sheet of paper Report

Annual Report: Saudi Arabia 2011

June 20, 2011

Head of state and government: King Abdullah bin 'Abdul 'Aziz Al-Saud
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 26.2 million
Life expectancy: 73.3 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 26/17 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 85.5 per cent


Over 100 suspects in security-related offences were detained in 2010. The legal status and conditions of imprisonment of thousands of security detainees arrested in previous years, including prisoners of conscience, remained shrouded in secrecy. At least two detainees died in custody, possibly as a result of torture, and new information came to light about methods of torture and other ill-treatment used against security detainees. Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, particularly flogging, continued to be imposed and carried out. Women and girls remained subject to discrimination and violence, with some cases receiving wide media attention. Both Christians and Muslims were arrested for expressing their religious beliefs. Saudi Arabian forces involved in a conflict in northern Yemen carried out attacks that appeared to be indiscriminate or disproportionate and to have caused civilian deaths and injuries in violation of international humanitarian law. Foreign migrant workers were exploited and abused by their employers. The authorities violated the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. At least 27 prisoners were executed, markedly fewer than in the two preceding years.


In February, the Minister of Justice said that Saudi Arabia aimed to build a justice system incorporating the best of other states' judicial systems, inc11luding to provide an effective legal framework against terrorism and to allow women lawyers to represent clients in courts dealing with domestic disputes. However, at the end of 2010 the justice system remained largely secret. A fatwa (No. 239 of 12 April 2010), criminalizing the "financing of terrorism", was issued by the Council of Senior 'Ulema. It provided judges with discretion to impose any sentence, including the death penalty.

In May, the King ordered the formation of a committee to streamline procedures based on Shari'a (Islamic law) and to limit corporal punishment; this was expected to limit floggings to 100 lashes, so ending judges' discretion that in some cases had led to sentences of tens of thousands of lashes. The reform had not been introduced by the end of 2010.

Counter-terror and security

Over 100 people were detained for suspected security-related offences, and the legal status of thousands of others arrested in previous years remained unclear and secret.

  • In March, the authorities said they had detained 113 such suspects in recent months: 58 Saudi Arabians, 52 Yemenis, one Somali, one Bangladeshi and one Eritrean national. One of the 58 Saudi Arabians, a woman named as Haylah al-Qassir, was reported to have been arrested in February in Buraidah. The 113 were said by the authorities to have comprised three armed cells and to have been planning violent attacks; they were said to have been uncovered after two suspected al-Qa'ida members were killed by security forces in October 2009 in Jizan province. No further information was disclosed.
  • Dr Ahmad 'Abbas Ahmad Muhammad, an Egyptian national, continued to be held at al-Hair prison in Riyadh. His legal status was unclear. He was arrested shortly after a suicide bombing in May 2003 in Riyadh which killed 35 people. He had reportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia from Egypt to take a job at a health centre.

At least 12 suspects detained in previous years were released in July apparently after the authorities decided that they no longer posed a threat after they attended a "rehabilitation programme". Ten others, all reported to be former Guantánamo Bay detainees returned to Saudi Arabia by the US authorities, received suspended prison sentences in March ranging from 3 to 13 years and were banned from travelling outside Saudi Arabia for five years. No details were available about their trial or the charges they faced. Some 15 other Saudi Arabians remained in US detention at Guantánamo Bay.

In June, the Deputy Minister of Interior told Okaz newspaper that a large number of detainees were being tried and that each would "get what he deserves", but gave no details. In September, press reports suggested that courts comprising three judges were being established to try defendants facing capital charges, while single-judge courts would try other defendants. The reports suggested that these courts were about to begin operation in Jeddah and then move to Riyadh. The first trial of 16 defendants opened in October in a prison in Jeddah; among the defendants were seven advocates of peaceful political reform who had been detained since February 2007. The trial was held in camera and the authorities did not disclose the precise charges; the defendants were not permitted access to lawyers.

  • Sulaiman al-Rashudi, a former judge in his seventies, was arrested on 2 February 2007 in Jeddah along with other advocates of reform and was among the 16 defendants brought to trial in October. In August 2009, human rights activists had petitioned the Board of Grievances, an administrative court, to order the Ministry of Interior to release him. The Ministry declared that the administrative court was not competent to hear the case because Sulaiman al-Rashudi had been charged and his case had been referred to the Special Criminal Court.

Freedom of religion

Scores of Muslims and Christians were arrested in connection with their religious beliefs or expression of those beliefs. Members of the Shi'a Muslim community were targeted for holding collective prayer meetings, celebrating Shi'a religious festivals and on suspicion of breaching restrictions on building Shi'a mosques and religious schools.

  • Turki Haydar Muhammad al-'Ali and five other people, mostly students, were arrested in January after posters of an al-Hussainiya (Shi'a religious centre) were displayed on the occasion of their holy day of 'Ashura in December 2009. They were detained without charge or trial at al-Ihsa prison and all were believed to be still held at the end of 2010.
  • Makhlaf Daham al-Shammari, a human rights activist and a Sunni Muslim, was arrested on 15 June after he published an article criticizing what he said was prejudice by Sunni religious scholars against members of the Shi'a community and their beliefs. He was still held at Dammam General Prison at the end of 2010; an appeal against his arbitrary detention submitted to the Board of Grievances had not been heard by the end of the year.
  • In October, 12 Filipinos and a Roman Catholic priest were arrested in Riyadh by religious police who raided a religious service being held in secret; they appeared to be accused of proselytizing. They were released on bail the following day.

Torture and other ill-treatment

The authorities maintained a high degree of secrecy about detainees and their detention conditions and treatment, but reports emerged of at least two deaths in custody, possibly as a result of torture or other ill-treatment.

  • Dr Muhammad Amin al-Namrat, a Jordanian, died in January in the General Intelligence prison in 'Asir province. An Arabic teacher, he was reported to have been sentenced to two years in prison in 2007 for urging his students to take up arms against US forces in Iraq. He appeared to have been detained beyond the expiry of his sentence. No official investigation into his death was reported.
  • Mohammed Farhan died in September while detained at a police station in Jubail. A medical report was said to have referred to marks of strangulation on his neck. No investigation into his death was reported to have taken place by the end of the year.

A former detainee who had been held in Riyadh's 'Ulaysha prison as a security suspect in 2007 and 2008 told Amnesty International that he had been kept handcuffed and shackled for 27 days following his arrest before the handcuffs were removed and he was allowed to take a shower for the first time. He said that he had been interrogated during the night for more than a month and that this was routine for security suspects.

Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments

Corporal punishment, particularly flogging, was routinely imposed as a sentence by the courts and carried out as the main or as an additional punishment.

  • In January, a court in Jubail sentenced a 13-year-old school girl to 90 lashes, to be carried out in front of her classmates, after it convicted her of assaulting a teacher. She was also sentenced to two months' imprisonment. Further details were not known and it was not clear whether the flogging was carried out or not.
  • In November, a man was reported to have been sentenced to 500 lashes and five years' imprisonment by a court in Jeddah for homosexuality, among other charges.

Women's rights

Women continued to face discrimination in law and in practice and to be subjected to domestic and other violence. The law does not give women equal status with men, and rules on male guardianship subordinate women to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and freedom of movement. This leaves women vulnerable to violence within the home, which may be committed by men with impunity.

  • The case of a 12-year-old girl whose father had forcibly married her to an 80-year-old man for money was widely publicized in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Legal action by local human rights activists highlighted the case and resulted in the girl obtaining a divorce in February.
  • In February, the Supreme Judicial Council overturned a lower court decision in 2006 requiring a married couple, Fatima al-Azzaz and Mansur al-Taimani, to divorce against their wishes. The earlier case had been brought by the brother of Fatima al-Azzaz on the ground that her husband was from a tribe of lower social status and therefore did not satisfy the rule of parity of status, which provides that spouses must be of equal social status or the marriage will be invalid.

In November, Saudi Arabia was elected to the board of a new UN body established to promote women's rights.

Migrants' rights

The sponsorship system governing employment of foreign nationals continued to expose them to exploitation and abuse by private and government employers, and allowed them little or no redress. Typical abuses included long working hours, non-payment of salaries, being refused permission to return home after completing their contracts and violence, particularly against women domestic workers.

  • Yahya Mokhtar, a Sudanese medical doctor who had been stranded with his family since 2008 because his former employer refused to allow him to leave Saudi Arabia, was allowed to return to Sudan in May.
  • L.P. Ariyawathie, a Sri Lankan employed as a domestic worker, was found to have 24 nails and a needle driven into her hands, leg and forehead when she returned to Sri Lanka in August. She said that the injuries had been inflicted by her employer when she complained about her heavy workload. It was unclear whether the Saudi Arabian authorities were investigating the matter.
  • An Indonesian domestic worker, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, was hospitalized in Madina following reports that her employers cut her face with scissors, burned her with an iron and beat her. The mutilated body of another Indonesian worker, Kikim Komalasari, was found in a skip in Abha. The Saudi Arabian and Indonesian authorities were said to be investigating the cases.

Air strikes and killings of civilians in northern Yemen

In November 2009, Saudi Arabian forces became involved in the conflict between Yemeni government forces and Huthi rebels in the Sa'dah area of Yemen (see Yemen entry). Saudi Arabian forces clashed with armed Huthis and carried out air strikes against towns and villages in Sa'dah. Some of these attacks appeared to be indiscriminate or disproportionate and to have caused civilian deaths and injuries in violation of international humanitarian law. They ceased when the Yemeni government and Huthi rebels agreed a ceasefire in February.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

In June and July, the authorities forcibly returned some 2,000 Somali nationals to Somalia, despite the continuing armed conflict there and appeals from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Most of those returned were women.

  • Twenty-eight Eritreans continued to be restricted to a camp near Jizan city; they were believed to have been there since 2005.

Death penalty

The recorded number of executions fell for a second year running. At least 27 people were executed, a marked reduction on the 69 recorded in 2009 and 102 recorded in 2008. Six foreign nationals were among those executed.

At least 140 prisoners were under sentence of death, including some sentenced for offences not involving violence, such as apostasy and sorcery.

  • 'Ali Hussain Sibat, a Lebanese national, and 'Abdul Hamid bin Hussain bin Moustafa al-Fakki, a Sudanese national, were under sentence of death having been convicted in separate trials of committing sorcery. In both cases, their trials were unfair; they were tried in secret and without access to defence lawyers.

In December, Saudi Arabia was one of the minority of states that voted against a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.