Is Saudi Arabia becoming more liberal?
The United Nations doesn't think so.
In fact, the idea that the ultraconservative Islamic kingdom is becoming more liberal is "completely wide of the mark," according to U.N.’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, the British QC Ben Emmerson.
Amidst the praise surrounding Saudi Arabia's decision to allow women to drive — on June 24 — the U.N. has released a report, shedding light on the oft-ignored abuses occurring behind-the-scenes.
Following a five-day official inspection, which was conducted on the invitation of the Saudi government, Emmerson found the country uses anti-terror laws to clamp down on dissent and arrest human rights activists.
“Those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression are systematically persecuted in Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. report found. “Many languish in prison for years. Others have been executed after blatant miscarriages of justice.
Far from becoming liberal, Emmerson concluded it was "a matter of shame for the U.N." that it even allowed Saudi Arabia onto the U.N. human rights council (HRC) in 2016.
The report talked about "the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing," aka the terrorism law, which, the U.N. found, has a broad and vague definition of terror-related activities.
The law defines terrorism as:
"Any act carried out by an offender in furtherance of an individual or collective project, directly or indirectly, intended to disturb the public order of the state, or to shake the security of society, or the stability of the state, or to expose its national unity to danger, or to suspend the basic law of governance or some of its articles, or to insult the reputation of the state or its position, or to inflict damage upon one of its public utilities or its natural resources, or to attempt to force a governmental authority to carry out or prevent it from carrying out an action, or to threaten to carry out acts that lead to the named purposes or incite [these acts]."
As is clear from the description, it can be easily used to arrest peaceful dissidents as well.
“The judiciary has now been brought entirely under the control of the king, and lacks any semblance of independence from the executive,” he said. “Put simply, there is no separation of powers in Saudi Arabia, no freedom of expression, no free press, no effective trade unions and no functioning civil society.”
Emmerson found there is a criminal lack of transparency when it comes to prosecution of human rights activists. He was repeatedly denied access to several prisons and could not meet some of the most prominent arrested human rights activists to interview them in person.
In addition, Emmerson received reports of torture techniques being used on inmates such as "electric shocks, sleep deprivation, being held incommunicado for prolonged periods of solitary detention, and beatings to the head, face, jaw, and feet."
Despite over 3,000 formally recorded allegations of torture between 2009 and 2015, not a single official was tried or even investigated.
"The theoretical protections enshrined in law appear illusory in practice,” the report adds.
The inspection was completed before the latest crackdown on mostly women's rights activists who had campaigned for the lifting of the driving ban for years, under the watch of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely credited for the progress Saudi Arabia has undergone over the years.
“Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalizing are completely wide of the mark,” Emmerson added. “The last two years have seen an unprecedented concentration of executive power in the monarchy across every sphere of public life.”
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