“Media attention is uneven. Sometimes there is a remarkable interest but often the human rights situation is not a priority.”
Saudi Arabia signed the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1997. However, the application of torture in the country remains a source of concern among human rights advocates. Government critics, bloggers, political commentators and activists are in danger as limits to freedom of expression results in arbitrary arrests, detentions, corporal punishments, ill-treatment and, in many cases, torture.
Politics in the country is dominated by the dynasty of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The King represents the legislative, executive and judicial powers, while members of the Al Saud royal family are also represented in some diplomatic posts. King Salman’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, is Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is the Defence Minister and second in line to the throne.
According to the Amnesty International 2015/2016 report, authorities continue to arrest, prosecute and imprison people who show opposition to the government. Flogging, amputations and other forms of torture are frequent, which puts people in critical conditions and leaves indelible wounds.
Human rights awareness
To investigate the issue of torture in Saudi Arabia, the IPF spoke to Ali Adubisi, the Director of the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR). Founded in 2013 by Saudi activists, ESOHR works to reinforce the principles and values of the International Bill of Human Rights, as well as increase human rights awareness through the media.
Ali noted that most people who are tortured in Saudi Arabia are done so after being arrested on charges related to demonstrating against the government or expressing opinions that oppose the country’s political system. He told the IPF:
“One of the main reasons the detainees were being tortured was to extract confessions. A number of cases confirmed that torture was [due to] retaliatory reasons.”
Ali and his colleagues at ESOHR believe that the European Union (EU) should urge the Saudi government to stop torture, as well as other forms of abuse in the country. He said: “Relations between the EU and Saudi Arabia [should] be directed to urge the Saudi government to stop human rights abuses at home and abroad.”
He went on to explain why this was important:
“Detecting Saudi Arabia violations to the international community and the Human Rights Council, in addition to diplomatic pressure, may urge the Saudi government to abide by the treaty.”
However, when it comes to torture in Saudi Arabia, the UN Committee against Torture has highlighted points of concern that prevent them from eradicating the problem in the Kingdom. One of the most crucial aspects is undefined legislation and the lack of a definition for “torture”, which leaves the practice in a blurred area.
All methods of torture need to be prohibited
Ali explained that ESOHR has been looking at the issue of lack of definition, noting that they work with special rapporteurs on torture to address Saudi Arabia’s specific case. Additionally, ESOHR recently organised a symposium about torture in cooperation with the Committee against Torture, in an attempt to increase debate around the issue.
Speaking about the importance of such events, Ali said that it was essential for them to continue raising awareness through a number of ways so that Saudi citizens realise that all methods of torture need to be prohibited.
“Fear controls the power of citizens. Official practices prevents them from talking about torture. The campaign, especially via social media, contributed towards spreading a culture of rejection of torture and encouraged people to talk about [the issue].”
Although their events, collaborations and social media campaigns are an important aspect of their work, ESOHR also actively works with European media to bring the issue to the international arena.
Because the Saudi government is working to portray a positive image of the country through the media, Ali explained that the ESOHR needed to counter this by raising awareness about torture practices through the media as well.
“Media attention is uneven,” Ali said. “Sometimes there is a remarkable interest but often the human rights situation is not a priority.”
However, he went on to add:
“It is interesting that a lot of journalists in Europe [are beginning] to understand the nature of human rights in Saudi Arabia, which has become an obstacle to the government’s attempts to mislead international public opinion.”