02/19/2007, 00.00
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Children condemned to death and adults detained for years without charge

A Human Rights Watch commission conducted an official mission to Saudi Arabia and found that defendants and detainees suffered severe human rights violations. Trials are held behind closed doors and defendants have few rights. Women are subjected to constant male guardianship. Meanwhile migrant workers face a tough situation.

New York (AsiaNews/HRW) – Thousands of prisoners in jail without charge, children sentenced to death and oppression of women. In a report issued on 17 February, a commission from Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed serious violations of human rights in Saudi trials and prisons.

During a four-week mission in December, the team observed trials and visited jails, even if under 24-hour “surveillance” and with several limitations. It was able to ascertain that the secret police held thousands of detainees without trial for political reasons, without bringing them before a court, although Article 114 of the Criminal Procedure Code requires that detention without charge cannot exceed six months. The accused often do not have a lawyer and even if they do, it is difficult for the defence to have access to their charge sheet. Trials are usually held behind closed doors although Article 155 of the Code stipulates they should be public. The court of Jiddah did not allow the commission to observe trials. HRW said many sentences were based on minimal evidence and judges often did not write the verdict down, as happened in the political trials of those charged with revolting in Najran in 2000.

Many prisoners at al-Ha'ir prison south of Riyadh reported physical abuse and others said they remained locked up long after their sentences expired. But many of the 300 people interviewed said they did not want to make any reports for fear of “reprisals” from the authorities.

Children are jailed for minor offences, even for violating "morals". In prison they are beaten and kept in solitary confinement. Thirteen-year-old children have been sentenced to death because they were considered to be “mature”. But HRW was unable to discover what they had done. Worse still was the situation of women, often subject to constant male guardianship.

The commission also ascertained the terrible situation of the country's 9 million foreign workers. Workers can be sacked at any time. They are forced to work for long hours without weekly rest and may go unpaid for months. There were frequent cases of sexual abuse, forced labour and human trafficking.

However, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said the Saudi government’s invitation “reflects a newfound openness toward discussing domestic human rights issues.” However she added: “By restricting our access to prisons and withholding general permission to observe trials, the Saudi government gave the appearance that it still has much to hide.”  

Saudi Arabia is ruled by a dynastic monarchy. King Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, has seemed inclined towards more discussion about human rights but little has improved. All the same, the report said: “Several ministers expressed their desire to invite Human Rights Watch back to Saudi Arabia to discuss our findings in detail.”

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