Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Amnesty International

Amnesty International

1. Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in over 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights. Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards. Our mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of these rights. We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion.


2. This submission addresses some of the key questions asked by the committee concerning the UK’s foreign policy priorities in its relations with Saudi Arabia as a “strategic ally” in the region and its influence on current and future trends and makes recommendations for the UK government to follow in its relations with the country. In doing so, it focuses on Saudi Arabian government violations of human rights and international humanitarian law linked to the UK arms trade with Saudi Arabia, human rights violations in the name of security and counter-terrorism, crackdowns on activists, the death penalty, cruel and inhumane corporal punishment, violence and discrimination against women and migrant workers, and repression against members of the Shi’a community.

3. Amnesty International recommends that the UK government, in addition to investigating the use by Saudi Arabia of UK fighter-bombers in violation of international humanitarian law, urges the Saudi Arabian government to safeguard the basic rights of its citizens and migrant workers in relation to all of the below mentioned specific issues.

4. It should be noted that Amnesty International has been asking for many years for access to Saudi Arabia to research human rights concerns but has never been granted such access by the authorities. This submission is based on information divulged to Amnesty International by people in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians or foreign nationals, including former prisoners, who have left the country. It is also based on government statements, where they exist, local and international media reports and other research carried out despite the obstacles.


5. The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is dire, but the country has largely escaped any pressure from its allies to improve it. Since the mid 2000s, the Saudi Arabian government has repeatedly announced that change will ensue, yet they have so far failed to commence a results-based reform process that meets the demands and aspirations of the country’s citizens. Moreover, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has been further exacerbated by repressive counter-terrorism measures. Patterns of human rights violations include the detention of peaceful critics of the state, extensive use of the death penalty, corporal punishments such as amputations and flogging, a justice system which continues to be secret and summary in nature, widespread torture and other ill-treatment, severe discrimination faced by women in law and in practice, discrimination faced by religious and other minority groups, violations of the rights of migrants, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

6. Saudi Arabia has been able to shield itself from direct pressure because of its influential global and regional status and primarily because of its strong position in the oil market and its status as an important player in the Middle East region, Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the Islamic world at large, due partly to the location of the two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina.

7. Regionally, Saudi Arabia continues to play a significant role in peace initiatives, in regional forums such as the Gulf Co-operation Council and the League of Arab States, and in the future political prospects of such countries as Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon. Globally, Saudi Arabia is an important actor in stabilizing the oil market, at the same time that it exercises much power on and through the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and other multilateral forums, together with its role in the G20, in encouraging interfaith dialogue and providing emergency aid. All these factors, in addition to Saudi Arabia’s large purchase of arms from Western countries, make it an important ally to countries such as the UK.

8. Only pressure from strong allies and actors as well as internal pressure may make Saudi Arabia address its dismal human rights record and heed the calls for reform. However, it is feared that the UK and other Western allies of Saudi Arabia have for decades attached disproportionate weight to their strategic and economic interests and have chosen to disregard the gross human rights violations that the Saudi Arabian Government carry out with impunity.

Human Rights Violations and Foreign Policy Recommendations

1. UK Arms Trade with Saudi Arabia and Violations of International Humanitarian Law

9. Saudi Arabia has been the recipient of record-breaking arms deals involving the UK, yet these have been highly secretive and there has been little or no follow-up over how the weaponry was used.

10. There is concern that Saudi Arabia has been responsible for most of the alleged indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians in the war between the Yemeni government and rebels known as “Huthis” in the region of Sa’da, north Yemen, between August 2009 and March 2010.

11. These attacks typically took the form of aerial bombardment of civilian areas using UK-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers. Additionally, the nature of the UK’s ongoing in-country military personnel support in Saudi Arabia and during the below mentioned instances remains vague and in need of clarification.

12. In November and December 2009, the town of al-Nadir in Razih, north Yemen, became a casualty of intensive Saudi Arabian air strikes. Hundreds of photographs and witness testimonies acquired in February and March 2010 describe large parts of the town as completely destroyed. Among the damaged or destroyed civilian buildings are market places, mosques, petrol stations, small businesses, a primary school, a power plant, a health centre, and dozens of houses and residential buildings.

13. On 23 or 24 December 2009, a first bomb hit the house of Muhammad Jaber, who was involved in the mediation efforts to stop the conflict. When people rushed to help those trapped in the house, a second strike directly targeted the building killing 38 people, 13 of whom were children.

14. During another of these bombing campaigns in the early hours of 30 December 2012, Saudi Arabian planes allegedly bombed and destroyed two residential buildings killing 33 to 45 members of the Abu Taleb family

15. International humanitarian law requires that all parties to an armed conflict treat civilians and non-combatants humanely, minimize unnecessary civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property, and take effective measures to minimize incidental civilian casualties.

16. Selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia should only be considered if there are absolutely watertight guarantees over them not being used to commit human rights violations.

17. Amnesty International has called on the UK government to investigate whether military aircraft, other weapons and their ongoing in-country military support to the Saudi Arabian armed forces have been used in violation of international humanitarian law but the organization is not aware of any such investigation.

18. Furthermore sales of arms to Saudi Arabia appears to continue without adequate disclosure as to the nature of the sales, possible or intended use of weapons or indeed what guarantees are in place to ensure non repeat of past violations.

1.1. Recommendations

19. The UK government should investigate without delay whether military aircraft and other weapons together with their ongoing in-country military support to the Saudi Arabian armed forces have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as whether UK support personnel have been involved in such violations, knowingly or not.

20. The UK government should take strict measures to ensure that UK military supplies and assistance are conditional upon the establishment of rigorous operational safeguards, including training and accountability systems, designed to prevent the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi Arabian armed forces.

2. Human Rights Violations in the Name of Security and Counter-Terrorism

21. Saudi Arabia has seemingly convinced the outside world that its counter-terrorism measures are a success. In fact in the past decade, thousands of people have been detained on security grounds, many of whom remain behind bars. Most have been held initially in prolonged incommunicado detention without charge or trial for years and without any means of challenging their detention. Torture and other ill-treatment remain rife and are used extensively to extract forced “confessions”, which are all too readily accepted by the courts. In recent years hundreds charged with security-related offences and brought to trial have faced grossly unfair and in many instances secret proceedings before the Specialized Criminal Court, which was established in October 2008.

22. In their desperation, families of detainees have since 2011 resorted to staging protests calling for the fair trial or release of their male relatives held in detention without charge or trial—some had been held for up to 10 years. The Saudi Arabian government responded by beating and arresting family members, many of whom are women and children. Most of these family members were released after signing pledges not to protest again. In March 2011 the government reissued the long-standing ban on protests.

23. A draft anti-terror law, a leaked copy of which Amnesty International published in July 2011, effectively criminalizes peaceful dissent as a “terrorist crime” and permits extended, potentially indefinite, incommunicado detention without charge or trial. If the law is passed without being amended, “terrorist crimes” would include “endangering… national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position”. Questioning the integrity of the King would carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years. The proposed anti-terror draft law would entrench and make legal the very worst practices Amnesty International has documented.

24. Saudi Arabia has also used counter-terrorism as a pretext to crack down on activists, critics of the state and those calling for reform, and charged activists with terrorism-related offences. For more information on this and other issues mentioned in this submission please see the attached report Saudi Arabia: Repression in the Name of Security, issued in December 2011.1

2.1. Recommendations

25. The UK government should urge Saudi Arabia to provide information on the progress of legal proceedings against the hundreds of detainees who, according to the government, are currently being tried on terrorism-related offences, including their names and the details of the charges against them.

26. The UK government should urge Saudi Arabia to either release the hundreds of people apparently detained without charge in the context of counter-terrorism or charge and promptly try them in legal proceedings meeting international fair trial standards.

27. The UK government should call on the Saudi Arabian government to respect the peaceful exercise of its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and association.

3. Crackdown on activists

28. The Saudi Arabian state and its justice system operate largely in secret, and the media is severely censored and otherwise constrained. Independent human rights organizations and other NGOs are not permitted to operate freely, protests are banned, and civil society remains weak because of government repression.

29. Activists in Saudi Arabia have been increasingly vocal about the human rights situation in the country. The Saudi Arabian government has met activism with repression.

30. Regular victims of the sweeping repression are an unknown number of human rights defenders, peaceful advocates of political reform, and many others who have committed no internationally recognized offence. At least some of them are prisoners of conscience. Methods of repression used include, arrests, incommunicado detention, torture or other ill-treatment, prolonged detention without charge or trial, and in some cases charging activists with vague security-related crimes such as “disobeying the ruler”.

3.1. Recommendation

31. The UK government should urge Saudi Arabia to halt its repression of activists and allow peaceful dissent. Anyone detained in connection with his or her peaceful activism must be released unconditionally and immediately.

4. Death Penalty

32. Since the beginning of 2012, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 70 persons, including 25 foreign nationals. Twenty-three out of the at least 70 were convicted on drugs-related offences. In 2011 Saudi Arabia executed at least 82 people, of whom 28 were foreign nationals and five were women. This was three times the figure for 2010, when at least 27 people were executed, of whom six were foreign nationals. Hundreds are currently believed to be under the death sentence.

33. Saudi Arabia applies the death penalty for a wide range of offences, including some with no lethal consequences and some not recognized internationally as crimes, such as apostasy, sorcery and blasphemy. Two people were executed for “sorcery” in 2011: in September, a male Sudanese national was beheaded following an unfair trial and in December a Saudi Arabian women was beheaded for “witchcraft and sorcery”. Saudi Arabia also sentences to death and executes juvenile offenders, those convicted for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years of age despite being a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

34. Those executed in Saudi Arabia have invariably been subjected to grossly unfair trials in which they have not had adequate—or any—legal representation. Generally they have been convicted on the basis of confessions, which are often extracted under torture or duress, and have been denied a right of appeal consistent with the requirements of international fair trial standards. Often, poor foreign migrant workers are convicted and sentenced to death following trials in which the proceedings are not translated into a language that they understand.

4.1. Cases

35. Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, was sentenced to death in June 2007 for the alleged murder of her employer’s baby. She was 17 years old at the time of the alleged crime and had no access to lawyers either during interrogation or at her trial and it is believed that she confessed to the murder during police questioning, only to later retract her confession. The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence in October 2010.

36. Suliamon Olyfemi, a Nigerian national, was sentenced to death in 2004 following an unfair trial, in which he had no access to a translator (he did not understand Arabic, the language in which court proceedings are conducted) or a lawyer. He was detained during a mass arrest of African nationals in September 2002 after a policeman died in an alleged dispute with migrant workers. He has always maintained his innocence.

37. Siti Zainab Binti Duhri Rupa, an Indonesian domestic worker, was sentenced to death after she reportedly confessed to the murder of her employer in 1999 while mentally ill and did not have any legal representation.

4.2. Recommendations

38. The UK government should call on the Saudi Arabian government to immediately impose a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty, as called for by UN General Assembly resolutions 62/149, 63/168 and 65/206.

39. The UK government should urge the Saudi Arabian government to stop imposing the death penalty on anyone under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged offence, in accordance with Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

40. The UK government should urge the Saudi Arabian government to remove from their law any death penalty provisions which are in breach of international human rights law, such as for crimes which do not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes”.

41. The UK government should urge the Saudi Arabian government to publicize on an annual basis comprehensive statistics on the death penalty and facts around the administration of justice in death penalty cases.

42. The UK government should urge the Saudi Arabian government to halt planned executions and commute without delay all death sentences to terms of imprisonment.

5. Cruel and Inhumane Corporal Punishment

43. Corporal punishment is used extensively in Saudi Arabia despite it being a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

44. Flogging for instance is mandatory in Saudi Arabia for a number of offences and can also be used at the discretion of judges as an alternative or in addition to other punishments. Sentences can range from dozens to tens of thousands of lashes, and are usually carried out in instalments, at intervals ranging from two weeks to one month. The highest number of lashes imposed in a single case recorded by Amnesty International was 40,000 lashes. They were imposed in 2009 in a case of a defendant convicted on murder charges.

45. Punishment by amputation is also enforced in Saudi Arabia for certain offences. They are mainly limited to cases of “theft”, for which the sentence is amputation of the right hand, and “highway robbery”, which is punished by “cross amputation” (amputation of the right hand and left foot). Only a few days ago, on 21 November 2012, a Nigerian man had his right hand amputated for theft.

5.1. Recommendations

46. The UK government should urge Saudi Arabia to abolish all corporal punishments which amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, such as flogging and amputations, in accordance with Saudi Arabia’s obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

47. The UK government should also call for planned amputations and floggings to be halted and sentences to corporal punishment to be commuted.

6. Violence and Discrimination Against Women

48. Women in Saudi Arabia remain subjected to severe discrimination in both law and practice. They must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel, take paid work, enrol in higher education, or marry. In addition, Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals cannot pass on their nationality to their children, unlike the case for Saudi Arabian men in a similar situation.

49. Discrimination has fuelled violence against women, with foreign domestic workers particularly at risk of abuses such as beatings, rape and even murder, in addition to non-payment of their salaries. The rates of domestic violence in Saudi Arabia are high, with little judicial recourse for victims, and often accompanied by impunity for perpetrators. There has been concern that discriminatory rules relating to marriage have caused women to be trapped in violent and abusive relationships from which they have no legal recourse.

50. Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia petitioned the King to allow women to drive vehicles. The ban on women driving has been challenged by a campaign called “Women2Drive”, which made online appeals to women who hold international driving licences to start driving on Saudi Arabian roads from 17 June 2011 onwards. Scores of women have taken to the roads and some have been arrested. Most have been released without charge shortly afterwards after pledging not to drive again, but several are reported to be facing charges as a result. At least one was sentenced, but the sentence has recently been commuted.

6.1. Recommendation

51. The UK government should raise with the Saudi Arabian government the ban on driving with a view to it being overturned. Saudi Arabia must also ensure that women are protected from violence and that discrimination against them is lifted.

7. Migrant Workers

52. Migrant workers make up approximately one third of the population of Saudi Arabia. They are subjected to abuses by the state and private employers including detention without trial, physical and psychological ill-treatment and non-payment of salaries.

53. Migrant domestic workers in the Saudi Arabia are commonly subjected to such abuses as restrictions on their freedom of movement, discrimination, and harassment. They are often not given access to legal advice or adequate language interpretation, and are often unable to obtain protection or redress under existing labour laws.

54. Employers commonly retain the passports of their domestic workers, which may result in detained domestic workers being held at deportation centres for weeks or months, while their paperwork is being completed. Some domestic workers are not allowed to leave the house where they work without permission from their employers. They are often required to work excessive hours for inadequate pay.

7.1. Recommendation

55. The UK government should urge Saudi Arabia to reform its labour laws with a view to ensuring that migrant workers have adequate protection against abuses by employers and the state.

8. Repression against members of Shi’a Community

56. Sunni Islam is the main denomination of Saudi Arabia and discrimination against members of the Shi’a community has exacerbated a tense situation in the Eastern Province. Members of the Shi’a community have been targeted for practising their faith and have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and detention without charge or trial. Since February 2011 members of the Shi’a community have taken to the street to protest against these violations and Amnesty International has seen a new wave of repression as authorities have cracked down on protesters. Hundreds of people have been arrested for demonstrating, as protests are banned in Saudi Arabia. Many have been released often after pledging not to protest again, but over a hundred men and about 19 children remain detained in connection with recent protests.

8.1 Recommendation

57. The UK government must urge Saudi Arabia to put an end to discrimination, intimidation, harassment and detention without charge or trial of members of the Shi’a community and allow peaceful protests.


The situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia, is, as we have stated above, dire. The Saudi Arabian state treats its citizens and those it plays host to, in a way that is nothing less than shocking. For many years, the UK government has chosen to prioritize strategic and economic interests in its relations with the country above the interests of human rights. Nonetheless, this UK government has repeatedly stressed how it “puts human rights at the heart of what it does”. Amnesty International has called many times on the UK government to make this assertion real. We ask the UK government to acknowledge that there are abuses, such as those carried out by the Saudi Arabian government, that cannot, any longer, be overlooked.

26 November 2012

1 This report is not reproduced here but is available on Amnesty International’s website

Prepared 19th November 2013