Saudi authorities in 2021 carried out arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms.
Saudi Arabia announced important and necessary reforms in 2020 and 2021, but ongoing repression and contempt for basic rights are major barriers to progress. The near-total repression of independent civil society and critical voices impedes the chances that reform efforts will succeed.
Freedom of Expression, Association, and Belief
Saudi authorities in 2021 routinely repressed dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics. On April 5, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court sentenced an aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, 37, to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel ban on charges related to his peaceful expression. On April 20, the same court sentenced a human rights activist, Mohammed al-Rabea, to six years in prison on vague and spurious charges related to his activism. Sources close to both cases say that Saudi authorities tortured them in detention and compelled them to sign false confessions. A Saudi court sentenced Sudanese journalist Ahmad Ali Abdelkader, 31, to four years in prison in June on vague charges based on tweets and media interviews he shared to Twitter in which he expressed support for Sudan’s 2018-19 revolution and criticized Saudi actions in Sudan and Yemen.
Saudi authorities released prominent women’s rights activists from prison in 2021, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah. They remained banned from travel and were serving suspended sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity. In January, Human Rights Watch received text messages from persons identifying themselves as Saudi prison guards describing torture and ill-treatment they witnessed by Saudi interrogators against high-profile detainees in mid to late 2018, including Loujain al-Hathloul and Mohammed al-Rabia.
Capital trials continued against detainees on charges that related to nothing more than peaceful activism and dissent. As of September, those on trial facing the death penalty included prominent cleric Salman al-Awda, on charges alleging ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and public support for imprisoned dissidents, as well as Hassan Farhan al-Maliki on vague charges relating to the expression of his peaceful religious ideas. Al-Awda and al-Maliki have been in detention since September 2017 with multiple postponements of their trials, which began in 2018.
Prominent royal family members remained detained without any apparent legal basis in 2021. They include former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and former Saudi Red Crescent head Faisal bin Abdullah, both of whom were detained in early 2020 and have been held largely incommunicado.
In late 2020, a Saudi court following an unfair trial sentenced two children of former Saudi intelligence official Saad al-Jabri to nine and six-and-a-half years in prison respectively, for “money laundering” and “attempting to escape” Saudi Arabia, apparently in order to coerce their father to return from abroad. Authorities charged the two a month after al-Jabri filed a lawsuit against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a US court alleging that the crown prince had sent a hit squad to murder him in Canada in 2018. The authorities also detained up to 40 other al-Jabri family members and associates.
Over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving long prison sentences. Prominent activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was serving a 15-year sentence that the Specialized Criminal Court imposed after convicting him in 2014 on charges stemming solely from his peaceful criticism of human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media.
With few exceptions, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment. A 2021 textbook review found that despite steps to purge school textbooks on religion of hateful and intolerant language, current texts maintain language that disparages practices associated with Shia and Sufi Muslims.
Yemen Airstrikes and Blockade
As the leader of the coalition that began military operations against Houthi forces in Yemen on March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law. As of August, at least 8,773 civilians had been killed in the conflict and 9,841 wounded since 2015, according to the Yemen Data Project, although the actual civilian casualty count is likely much higher. Most of these casualties were a result of coalition airstrikes that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes.
In September, the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen stated that it had “reasonable grounds” to believe that parties to the conflict in Yemen were responsible for grave human rights violations and reiterated its call to the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court. Saudi Arabia campaigned vigorously to end the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts, which was not renewed at the September session of the UN Human Rights Council.
The conflict exacerbated an existing humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an aerial and naval blockade since March 2015 and restricted the flow of life-saving goods and the ability for Yemenis to travel into and out of the country to varying degrees throughout the war. (See also Yemen chapter).
Saudi Arabia applies its uncodified interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) as its national law. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, judges and prosecutors can convict people on a wide range of offenses under broad charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest.
Judges routinely sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes. Children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults if they show physical signs of puberty. In 2021, judges based some capital convictions primarily on confessions that the defendants retracted in court and said had been coerced under torture, allegations the courts did not investigate. Saudi laws do not clearly prohibit the corporal punishment of children, which the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded in 2016 “remains lawful in all settings”.
Though Saudi authorities announced criminal justice reforms in 2020 that re-stated a 2018 legal change halting the death penalty for alleged child offenders for certain crimes, prosecutors can seek the death penalty against children for crimes such as murder. Abdullah al-Huweiti has been on death row since 2019 and could be executed even though he was 14 at the time of the alleged crime and his conviction followed a grossly unfair trial.
Saudi Arabia did not carry out any drug-related executions in 2021, in line with a moratorium on such executions that the Saudi Human Rights Commission said went into effect in 2020. According to Interior Ministry statements, Saudi Arabia executed 52 persons between January and September, mostly for murder, up from 24 executions total in 2020. Executions are carried out by firing squad or beheading, sometimes in public.