In Saudi Arabia, 2013 was another bad year for human rights, marred by executions and repression of women and activists. Unfortunately, outside of annual human rights reports, U.S. public criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record has been limited for many years.
Saudi activists, many who have been imprisoned, often ask me why representatives of the U.S. government, who have good relations with members of the Saudi ruling elite, don't publically raise their cases and press Saudi authorities to respect the human rights of Saudi citizens. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice admitted in a December speech: "Let's be honest: At times, as a result, we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear. We make tough choices." It appears U.S. officials have weighed the economic and geostrategic aspects of the relationship with the kingdom, and effectively told Saudi activists to go to the back of the line.
Saudi Arabia carried out dozens of executions in 2013. The vast majority were public beheadings, including the gruesome beheading of five Yemeni men for murder and armed robbery in May and public display of their decapitated bodies in the southern town of Jizan.
Authorities continued to treat women as legal minors, preventing them from making important life decisions -- such as leaving the country, undertaking higher education, or undergoing certain medical procedures -- without the approval of a male guardian. When dozens of Saudi women got behind the wheel to assert their right to drive cars on October 26, authorities pulled some of them over and forced them to sign pledges not to do it again. Two women in the Eastern Province were convicted by a Saudi court of "inciting a woman against her husband" for trying to help a woman who said she had been locked in her home without adequate food.
In November, Saudi Arabia resumed a campaign to detain and expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreign workers. Many expelled workers reported terrible prison conditions while awaiting deportation, including overcrowding, beatings, and lack of food and water. Ethiopian workers in Riyadh told me stories of physical assaults by Saudi citizens, which police failed to stop, or in which they actively participated.
Independent activists have felt the repressive weight of the unfair justice system and harsh policies of the Saudi Interior Ministry in 2013. The kingdom persecuted activists in an attempt to stem criticism in social media and on news and analysis websites. In addition to convicting eight prominent human rights defenders, many of them in unfair trials, the authorities have attempted to silence and intimidate dozens of others with travel bans, smear campaigns, and threats to investigate and prosecute them for peaceful activities. In the absence of a written penal code or of narrowly worded criminal regulations, judges and prosecutors can criminalize a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all categories such as "breaking allegiance with the ruler" or "trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom."
One prominent activist, Waleed Abu al-Khair, is on trial before the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia's terrorism tribunal, on a host of vague charges such as "breaking allegiance with the ruler" and "inciting international organizations against the kingdom" for his role in publicizing information on human rights abuses and criticizing government policies. If convicted, he could face years in prison. He faces a separate criminal proceeding for hosting a weekly discussion group about prospects for political and social reform in Saudi Arabia.
Another human rights activist, Fadhel al-Manasif, played a leading role in documenting abuses against demonstrators in the Eastern Province in 2011. He organized educational workshops on human rights in Qatif and acted as an interlocutor between the families of detainees and authorities, on several occasions approaching police officials on behalf of families to ask the whereabouts of missing family members. Detained in October 2011, al-Manasif is currently on trial before the Specialized Criminal Court on charges that include "sowing discord," "inciting public opinion against the state," and "communicating with foreign news agencies to exaggerate news and harm the reputation of the kingdom."
No independent group in Saudi Arabia has faced greater levels of repression in 2013 than the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). A Riyadh court in March convicted Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani, ACPRA members and human rights veterans, on charges such as "harming public order" and "setting up an unlicensed organization." The court sentenced them to long prison terms -- 11 and 10 years respectively -- after which they face long bans on foreign travel. A court in the central town of Buriada convicted and imprisoned ACPRA members Omar al-Saeed and Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr on similar charges, and Fowzan al-Harbi remains on trial in Riyadh.
The United States claims that human rights issues are important to it. Rice said, in the same speech to the Human Rights First Summit, "We've employed a variety of means to spur governments to respect the universal rights of their people -- and to hold them accountable when they do not ... we are navigating the security challenges of the Arab Spring and helping partners lay the foundations for a future rooted in greater peace, opportunity, democracy and respect for human rights."
But there's little sign that the United States is raising these issues with the Saudi government. Saudi activists believe that this silence grossly misreads the Saudi ruling structure, which depends on a dynamic tug-of-war between reformist and conservative factions. U.S. officials certainly can't dictate Saudi government actions, but strategic pressure can bolster the reformists' position in the ruling elite. Fighting for human rights reforms can be a risky business in Saudi Arabia, and the absence of public support from the United States and others makes it even more difficult for those considering taking a stand.
When asked about their silence on these issues, U.S. officials often shrug off the question, or suggest that public criticism would do no good. But without any sign that the issue is being raised in private -- and that private expressions of concern are having an impact -- it may well be time to turn toward the public sphere.
In a positive development, after long refusing to monitor trials of political dissidents and human rights defenders, a U.S. official attended the trial session of activist Fowzan al-Harbi in Riyadh in January. This is a positive step, but more action is needed to show a serious U.S. commitment to hold the Saudi government to account for its human rights record.
The United States nominated army official Joseph William Westphal as the new ambassador to Riyadh in November, and, once he's confirmed, he will have an opportunity to break the silence on Saudi human rights issues. If the United States wants to strengthen its commitment to promoting human rights reform in Saudi Arabia, it should make a habit of sending embassy representatives to observe activists' trials and publicly call for the immediate release of Saudi human rights activists jailed over the past year and a half on account of their peaceful activism.
Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who follows events in Saudi Arabia.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images