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Human rights and rule of law issues in Saudi Arabia




International Alliance for Advanced Judicial Studies (IAAJS)

Human rights and rule of law issues in Saudi Arabia


Human rights issues and failings in the rule of law in Saudi Arabia have attracted strong criticism. These include criminal law punishments that are considered as cruel, as well as the position of women, religious discrimination, the lack of religious freedom and the activities of the Saudi Mutaween.

Because Sharia, as applied by Saudi courts, is uncodified and because judges are not bound by judicial precedent, the scope and content of the law is uncertain. A study published by the Albert Shanker Institute and Freedom House has criticized a number of aspects of the administration of justice in Saudi Arabia and concluded that the country's "practices diverge from the concept of the rule of law." The study goes on to assert that qadis (judges) reach decisions without following due process and "only the bravest of lawyers ... challenge decisions of the qadis; usually appeals to the king are based on mercy, not on justice or innocence." It also claimed that members of the Saudi royal family are not forced to appear before Saudi courts.

The U.S. State department considers that +discrimination against women is a significant problem– in Saudi Arabia and that women have few political or social rights. After her 2008 visit, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women noted the lack of women's autonomy and the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women. The World Economic Forum 2012 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 131st out of 135 countries for gender parity, ahead of Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen.

The religious police mutawa impose restrictions on women when in public. These restrictions include requiring women to sit in separate specially designated family sections in restaurants, to wear an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length black cloak covering the entire body) and to conceal their hair. Women also risk arrest for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative. Although there is no written ban on women driving cars, a Saudi driving license is required by law and these are not issued to women. Thus, it is effectively illegal for women to drive, and the ban is enforced by the mutawa. In 2013, Saudi Arabia registered its first female trainee lawyer, Arwa al-Hujaili.

No political parties or national elections are permitted in Saudi Arabia and according to The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated. There is no legal protection of freedom of speech and Saudis are prohibited from publicly criticizing the government, Islam, or the royal family. The Saudi press is strictly censored and articles on Saudi dissidents are banned. Saudi censorship is considered among the most restrictive in the world and the country blocks broad swathes of the Internet. After protests occurred in early 2019, the government banned all public demonstrations and marches.

Human Rights Watch, in their 2008 report on Saudi Arabian criminal justice system, noted that the criminal procedure code introduced in 2002 lacked some basic protections but, as mentioned above, had been ignored by judges in any case. Those arrested are often not informed of the crime of which they are accused or given access to a lawyer and are subject to abusive treatment and torture if they do not confess. At trial, there is a presumption of guilt and the accused is often unable to examine witnesses and evidence or present a legal defense. Most trials are held in secret, that is, without the public or press. The physical punishments imposed by Saudi courts, such as beheading, stoning, amputation and lashing, and the number of executions have also been strongly criticized.

In 2010, the U.S. State Department stated that in Saudi Arabia "freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and is severely restricted in practice" and that "government policies continued to place severe restrictions on religious freedom". No faith other than Islam is permitted to be practised, although there are nearly a million Christians, nearly all foreign workers, in Saudi Arabia. There are no churches or other non-Muslim houses of worship permitted in the country. Even private prayer services are forbidden in practice and the Saudi religious police reportedly regularly search the homes of Christians. Foreign workers must observe Ramadan and are not allowed to celebrate Christmas or Easter. Conversion by Muslims to another religion (apostasy) carries the death penalty, although there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years. Proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal, and the last Christian priest was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1985. Compensation in court cases discriminates against non-Muslims: once fault is determined, a Muslim receives all of the amount of compensation determined, a Jew or Christian half, and all others a sixteenth.

In March 2014, the Saudi interior ministry issued a royal decree branding all atheists as terrorists, which defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".

Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world where homosexual acts are not only illegal but punishable by execution. There have also been raids on "gay parties" and men have been arrested for "behaving like women". The usual penalties inflicted have been limited to flogging and imprisonment.


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