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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."