Saudi Arabia: slowly opening dialog about human rights

A Saudi commission cites progress on rights awareness. Still, a Human Rights Watch report Tuesday enumerated ongoing abuses, including arbitrary arrests and lack of legal counsel.

By , Correspondent

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    Saudi and foreign journalists listened to a UN women's rights rapporteur in Riyadh last month after the release of a UN report concluding that women suffer pervasive discrimination.
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    King Abdullah: Formed human rights group.
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Seated at an enormous white desk four floors above King Fahd Road's swiftly moving morning traffic, Turki al-Sudairy dialed the number of a deeply worried woman.

"She was in very bad shape when she called me," Mr. Sudairy related, describing Fatma Bishri as distraught because she had not heard from her husband since his arrest for allegedly attempting to join the Iraqi insurgency.

When Ms. Bishri answered, Sudairy soothingly assured her that he had spoken with prison officials, who approved a call, and that she would hear from her husband within hours. He hung up, noting that "she sounds better now."

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Delivering such small consolations is part of Sudairy's job as president of Saudi Arabia's two-year-old Human Rights Commission. Formed by a royal decree of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, the 24-member commission is a governmental body charged with monitoring the kingdom's compliance with human rights standards.

Its creation was part of the monarch's reformist agenda, which is trying to introduce some political and social changes while ruffling as few feathers as possible among the kingdom's substantial conservative constituency of both clerics and ordinary folk.

The commission, which reports to the king, is another sign of what some Saudis describe as an expanding awareness of human rights among the public and government officials. They cite increased discussion in the media and private blogs of such issues as child marriage, domestic violence, and treatment of foreign laborers.

"The big achievement is that it's no longer taboo to talk about human rights," one Saudi says privately.

Nevertheless, the release Tuesday of two reports by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) underscores continuing human rights abuses in Saudi society. Based on what the rights group calls "hundreds of interviews" with Saudi officials, former detainees, and their families, the reports describe cases of long detention without charges or trial, sometimes in solitary confinement, arbitrary arrests, lack of legal counsel, and forced confessions.

For the first time, representatives of several Saudi government ministries sat down with HRW researchers to discuss drafts of the reports and explain their actions. The meetings took place in the commission's offices over five days earlier this month in what was HRW's third official visit to Saudi Arabia since January 2003, according to HRW researcher Christophe Wilcke.

"It's encouraging that many [ministries] showed up," says Mr. Wilcke. But the group "didn't have the detailed discussions we'd hoped to have," because most government representatives hadn't read the reports in advance.

Ibrahim al Mugaiteeb, founder of the nongovernmental Human Rights First Society and an activist in the eastern city of Damman, praises the commission's creation, adding that "the government listens [to it]."

But he laments that the agency's mandate is not implemented. "If the mandate of the commission was applied in Saudi Arabia," he says, "Saudis would be the happiest people on earth."

Mr. Mugaiteeb notes that his fellow citizens still cannot express themselves freely without fear of reprisal, citing the recent sentences of four and six months given, respectively, to the politically active brothers Abdullah and Issa Al Hamid, and the detention since December of blogger Fouad al-Farhan.

Much work remains

Sudairy, a retired government employee who got his BA in political science in the United States, acknowledges that there is much work to be done to forge an enduring culture of human rights awareness.

One major obstacle, he says, is public resistance to the term "human rights" itself, which is widely perceived as a Western cultural concept being foisted on Saudi Arabia.

"The problem here," he explains, "is that some people think human rights is something coming from the West," when in reality, "we are not bringing something from the West. It's from within us, from our own culture, our own religion."

Part of the commission's job, he adds, is to educate Saudis. "The first thing we are trying to do is to raise the awareness of the human rights culture," he says. "Fortunately, Islam and Islamic teachings are human rights-directed in a very clear and objective way. But sometimes as life goes on ... individuals inside the government [or] outside the government don't follow up to what's really demanded of us by our religion."

Sudairy says the commission has designed a public campaign for television, radio, and newspapers explaining how human rights are Islamic values. The plan is awaiting approval by the king.

Interest in the commission's work clearly exists. After the commission set up an information booth at a recent national cultural festival, it took in about 200 written queries from festival visitors in just a few days. Another 700 people contacted the commission through its website, Sudairy said. Some contacts were complaints about abuses; many others asked how to get redress from injustices.

Visiting jails, responding to letters

In two years of operation, the commission has handled "about 16,000 pieces of mail, between incoming and outgoing, which means there is a lot activity going on just in letter-writing," Sudairy says. It has received "over 100" foreign delegations, and members have "visited many jails and we are going to visit more."

Sudairy says he believes these visits have led to improvements. "I cannot say examples in detail, but we felt there is a response," he says. "First of all, the General Directorate of Prisons is very responsive to our writings, [as is] the Ministry of Interior.... Every day, we receive five to six letters in response to our letters" regarding individual cases.

King Abdullah has ordered all ministries to reply to commission inquires within three weeks, Sudairy says, adding that responses usually arrive in a few days.

For now, Sudairy is taking a long view of the commission's work. "I don't think we have reached something we can say [is] very substantial," he says. "But I think we are moving in the right direction.... I think we are moving ahead slowly, steadily, and in time, maybe we will be in a better place than we are now."

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