Amnesty: Human Rights situation in Saudi Arabia


The authorities escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. They harassed, arbitrarily detained and prosecuted dozens of government critics, human rights defenders, including women’s rights activists, members of the Shi’a minority and family members of activists. Shi’a activists and religious clerics remained on trial before a counter-terror court for expressing dissent. The authorities used the death penalty extensively, carrying out scores of executions for a range of crimes, including drug offences. Some people, most of them members of the country’s Shi’a minority, were executed following grossly unfair trials. The authorities implemented major reforms to the repressive male guardianship system, including allowing women to obtain passports, travel without the permission of a male guardian and become heads of households; however, women continued to face systematic discrimination in law and practice in other areas and remained inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. The authorities granted hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals the right to work and access to education and health care, but arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of irregular migrant workers, who were exposed to labour abuses and exploitation by employers and torture when in state custody. Discrimination against the Shi’a minority remained entrenched.


In December, Saudi Arabia assumed the presidency of the G20, the next meeting of which is due to be held in its capital, Riyadh, in November 2020. Before this, the authorities announced several reforms, including the introduction of tourist visas for citizens of 49 countries.

Amnesty International continued to be denied entry to Saudi Arabia. In January, the organization called on the authorities to allow it and other independent monitors access to detained activists, including women human rights defenders, following allegations of torture, ill-treatment and sexual harassment of at least 10 detained activists.[1] Amnesty International received no response. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders sent reminders to the Saudi Arabian authorities for requests to visit the country in 2019. No response was reported.

Saudi Arabia remained a member of the coalition imposing economic and political sanctions on Qatar, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Saudi Arabia continued to co-lead the coalition in neighbouring Yemen, a coalition that is implicated in war crimes and other serious violations of international law (see Yemen entry). In September, a drone attack for which Yemen’s Huthis claimed responsibility targeted facilities of the state-owned oil company Aramco in Abqaiq, Eastern Province and cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production by about half for several weeks.

Freedom of expression, association and assembly

The authorities escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, including in their crackdown on online expression. They harassed, arbitrarily detained and prosecuted government critics, human rights defenders, members of the Shi’a minority and family members of activists.

In April, the authorities arbitrarily arrested 14 individuals for their peaceful support of the women’s rights movement and women human rights defenders. Among them were Salah al-Haidar, the son of Aziza al-Yousef, who remained on trial for her women’s rights work; Abdullah al-Duhailan, a journalist, novelist and advocate for Palestinian rights; and Fahad Abalkhail, who supported the Women to Drive Campaign. They remained in detention without charge or trial at the end of the year. In November, the authorities arbitrarily detained at least 10 men and women, including entrepreneurs, writers and intellectuals, for a week. Activists believe that the majority were released without charge.

The authorities continued to try individuals before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), a counter-terror court, on charges arising from the peaceful expression of views, in some cases on capital charges. Religious cleric Salman al-Awda, who had been arbitrarily detained since September 2017, remained at risk of the death penalty after the public prosecution called for his execution on charges related to, among other things, his alleged affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood and his calls for government reforms and regime change in Arab countries.

The authorities did not permit the formation of political parties, trade unions or independent human rights groups, and continued to prosecute and imprison those who set up or participated in unlicensed human rights organizations. All gatherings, including peaceful demonstrations, remained prohibited under an order issued by the Ministry of Interior in 2011.

Human rights defenders

The authorities continued to arrest, prosecute and imprison human rights defenders for their peaceful activities and human rights work under, among other legislation, the counter-terrorism law and the cybercrime law, which criminalizes online criticism of government policies and practice as well as commentary on current affairs. By the end of the year, virtually all Saudi Arabian human rights defenders were in detention without charge, or were on trial or serving prison terms.

After more than a year in detention, 11 women activists, including human rights defenders Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, were brought to trial before the Criminal Court in Riyadh in March 2019. Two other women human rights defenders, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada, were brought to trial three months later, in June.[2] The court sessions were closed and diplomats and journalists were banned from attending. Several women activists faced charges for contacting foreign media, other activists and international organizations, including Amnesty International. Some were also charged with “promoting women’s rights” and “calling for the end of the male guardianship system”. While eight of the 13 women activists were temporarily released in 2019, the five women human rights defenders among them remained in detention; all 13 remained on trial at the end of the year.

The authorities continued to arbitrarily detain human rights defenders for prolonged periods without bringing them before a judge or charging them. Mohammed al-Bajadi, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, remained held without charge or trial since his detention in May 2018.

In July, Mohammad al-Otaibi, already serving a 14-year prison sentence for his human rights work, was brought before the SCC for additional charges related to his communication with international organizations and attempt to seek political asylum in 2017. He remained on trial on the new charges at the end of 2019.

Government critics abroad

In September, on the first anniversary of the extrajudicial execution in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Crown Prince stated that he bore full responsibility for the killing because “it happened under my watch”. In December, the Public Prosecution announced that eight individuals suspected of involvement in the murder had been convicted; five were sentenced to death and three to prison terms. The authorities permitted the attendance of diplomats throughout the trial, which began in January, but closed the trial to journalists and the broader public, failed to provide information on the proceedings and thereby prevented independent monitoring.[3]

Saudi Arabia failed to co-operate with an inquiry by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions into the murder. The inquiry concluded in June that Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of a deliberate, premeditated extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia was responsible. The Special Rapporteur found “credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the Crown Prince’s”. The report also revealed abuses committed by the Saudi Arabian authorities or non-state actors associated with it against other dissidents abroad, abduction, enforced disappearance, threats, harassment and electronic surveillance, as well as psychological threats targeting the families of detained activists.[4]

In November, two former employees of Twitter were charged by US federal prosecutors with spying for Saudi Arabia by accessing information on dissidents who used Twitter. Among those targeted was Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Saudi Arabian dissident residing in Canada.

Death penalty

Courts continued to impose death sentences for a wide range of crimes and carried out scores of executions; there was an increase in executions for drug offences and terrorism-related crimes. The authorities generally failed to abide by international standards of fair trial and safeguards for defendants in capital cases. Such cases were often held in secret and their proceedings were summary with no legal assistance or representation for defendants, as well as no translation services for foreign nationals, through the various stages of detention and trial. Death sentences were regularly based on “confessions” that defendants said were extracted under torture.

On 23 April, 37 Saudi Arabian men were executed. They had been convicted in various trials before the SCC. Most were Shi’a Muslims convicted after grossly unfair trials that relied on “confessions” tainted by torture allegations. Among the 37 were 11 convicted of spying for Iran. At least 15 others were convicted of violent offences related to their participation in anti-government demonstrations in the Shi’a-majority Eastern Province between 2011 and 2012. They were subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention and told the court that they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated during interrogation to make them “confess”. Among them was Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, a young Shi’a man who was arrested when aged 16.[5]

Those who remained at risk of execution at the end of the year included other individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged offence. Some of these death sentences appeared to have been based solely on “confessions” that the defendants said were obtained through torture or other ill-treatment.

The authorities routinely failed to warn families of their relatives’ imminent execution or inform them immediately after the executions. Families of the Shi’a men executed on 23 April only found out that their loved ones had been executed when the authorities announced the news publicly on the same day. The authorities also failed to return the bodies of those executed to their families or inform them of the place of burial.

Women’s rights

In August, in a positive and long-overdue development, the authorities announced major reforms to the discriminatory male guardianship system. Among other things, these allowed women aged over 21 to apply for and obtain a passport and travel without the permission of a male guardian; women aged over 18 to register the birth of a newborn child, the death of a relative and their own marriage or divorce, as well as to apply for and obtain a family record; and women to act as the head of a household. While the reforms brought the recognition of women’s rights in these areas into line with those of men and also eased major restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, they did not abolish the guardianship system.[6] The reforms did not allow women to marry without the permission of a guardian or to provide consent for her children to marry. Women and girls continued to face systematic discrimination in law and in practice in other areas such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and the ability to pass on citizenship to their children.

Women and girls remained inadequately protected from sexual and other forms of violence. They continued to need a male guardian’s permission to leave shelters for those who had experienced domestic abuse.

In January, the Shura Council approved regulations for early marriage that prohibit marriage contracts for girls and boys under the age of 15. The draft regulations also stipulated that applications for a medical report to assess the maturity of individuals aged under 18 wishing to marry and for the marriage itself must be heard by a specialized court.

Migrants’ rights

In October, the authorities announced that they had granted citizenship to more than 50,000 individuals and their families and had issued identity documents to more than 800,000 people who had moved to Saudi Arabia “following political, economic and social turmoil in their home countries”. The documents would enable the recipients to work and access education and health care. Saudi Arabia continue to deny asylum-seekers access to a fair refugee determination process.

Meanwhile, the authorities continued their crackdown on irregular migrants. In November, the Ministry of Interior announced that, in the previous two years, about 4.1 million people had been arrested and over 1 million deported in a campaign targeting migrants accused of violating residential, border security and labour regulations and laws. In 2019 alone, over 2 million foreign workers were arrested and 500,000 were deported.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian migrant workers detained for labour law violations were tortured and otherwise ill-treated in detention facilities across the country; migrant workers said they had been beaten, denied food or water and chained together in overcrowded cells.

According to reports, over 900 Bangladeshi domestic migrant workers returned home from Saudi Arabia in 2019. Over 100 of them had been living in a shelter in Saudi Arabia after alleging that their employers had subjected them to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Others said that they had been forced to work without pay.

Discrimination – Shi’a minority

Shi’a Muslims continued to face discrimination because of their faith, limiting their right to express religious beliefs and access justice, as well as their right to work in a number of public sector professions and access state services.

A number of Shi’a activists accused of supporting or taking part in demonstrations in Eastern Province or expressing views critical of the government were prosecuted imprisoned or faced the death penalty in ongoing trials. Others were executed following unfair trials in previous years.