The Middle East Channel

The Deafening U.S. Silence on Saudi Rights

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

The Middle East Channel

Morsi Stands Trial as Egyptian Army Backs Sisi Presidential Bid

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has remained defiant as the trial over his jailbreak during the 2011 uprising opened Tuesday. The ousted president is being charged with collaborating with Hamas and Hezbollah to lead a mass escape from the Wadi al-Natrun prison and for killing prison officers. Morsi and several other defendants are being held in a soundproofed glass box for the trial. Nonetheless, the ousted leader shouted, "I am the president of the republic" and told the court "this trial is not legal." Though Morsi has refused to recognize the court, in a surprise move, he appointed a defense lawyer. Morsi is facing four criminal trials on separate charges, including inciting the killing of protesters during a December 2012 demonstration outside the presidential palace. Meanwhile, the Egyptian army has backed a presidential bid by Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In a statement broadcast on state television Monday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) called a presidential run by Sisi a "mandate and an obligation" requested by the "masses of honorable Egyptian people." The SCAF did not officially announce Sisi's candidacy, saying he would make the final decision "according to his conscience." According to a government source, Sisi will attend his last cabinet meeting Wednesday before resigning and announcing his presidential bid.

Syria

Syrian peace talks have resumed for a fourth day in Geneva despite a deadlock over the formation of a transitional administration and access for U.N. humanitarian aid convoys to besieged areas, specifically the city of Homs. Negotiations reportedly ended on Monday after the government delegation presented a "declaration of basic principles" that did not include a political transition. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted negotiations "hadn't produced much" to this point, and said that Tuesday's talks would focus on the Geneva communiqué that calls for a transitional administration. Brahimi also mentioned he hoped the parties would agree on concrete steps on humanitarian aid. According to the World Food Programme, the United Nations is prepared to deliver a month's worth of food to the Old City of Homs, where 2,500 people are reportedly trapped. The United States has accused the Syrian government of harming the negotiations by denying the delivery of aid to besieged areas of the country. Meanwhile, a second shipment of Syria's most toxic chemical weapons was exported on Monday from the port of Latakia, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations. The removal operation is behind schedule with a low estimate of five percent of the 600 tons of the most lethal chemical agents so far exported.

Headlines

  • Gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed senior Egyptian interior ministry official General Mohammad Saeed outside his home in Cairo Tuesday.
  • Kofi Annan's group of "Elders" met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Tuesday discussing the Syrian civil war and Tehran's contested nuclear program.
  • The Pentagon announced plans to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq after a congressional hurdle was removed Monday.
  • Talks between the Libyan government and a federalist protest movement that has seized three major oil ports have reportedly advanced so that exports may be resumed within two weeks.

Arguments and Analysis

'Egypt Has Replaced a Single Dictator With a Slew of Dictatorial Institutions: The sad story of Amr Hamzawy and Emad Shahin' (Nathan Brown, The New Republic)

"Both Hamzawy and Shahin are academics, but they have also been critical of the emerging political order in Egypt. Neither is a much of a firebrand. While different in their politics -- Hamzawy closer to the liberal end of the spectrum; Shahin more respectful of political Islam -- they also stand out for their ability to talk across Egypt's great divide. Indeed, beneath all their erudition and complicated syntax, both seem ultimately simply nerdier versions of Rodney King: their message to their fellow citizens can be summed up as 'People, I want to say -- can we all get along?'

That message had kept both Hamzawy and Shahin on the right side of the law under Egypt's previous rulers -- Husni Mubarak, the military, and Muhammad Morsi -- even though they were capable of criticizing all three. The conclusion from their recent troubles might seem to be clear: Egypt has entered an even harsher period in which centralized totalitarianism brooks no dissent from a terrorized society.

But actually, the problem may be a bit different -- and perhaps more difficult to resolve. Egypt's political affliction is not one dictatorial person but a host of dictatorial institutions, and much of Egyptian society is a happy participant rather than cowering victim in the wave of repression."

'Don't Undermine the Iran Deal' (Carl Levin and Angus King, New York Times)

"The potential upside of legislating further sanctions is the hope that increased pressure might elicit more concessions or push Iran to conclude a more favorable deal. But this is unlikely. The potential downside is more likely and more dangerous: Iran's decision makers could conclude that the United States government was not negotiating in good faith -- a view that Iranian hard-liners already espouse. This could prompt Iran to walk away from the negotiations or counter with a new set of unrealistic demands while redoubling its efforts to produce nuclear weapons.

Instead of slowing Iran's nuclear program, such legislation could actually accelerate its quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it.

Worse still, it could alienate our international partners. The sanctions have been effective largely because of the active participation of many countries, including China and Russia. When the United States alone doesn't buy Iranian oil, it has little effect on Iran's economy, but when the European Union stops, and other major oil customers of Iran such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey significantly reduce their purchases (which they have), Iran is in trouble (which it is).

The countries that have joined America in ratcheting up the economic pressure on Iran all support the interim agreement that went into effect on Jan. 20. Legislation to impose additional sanctions by the United States could be interpreted by our partners as undermining the negotiations. This could have the adverse effect of lessening the international community's economic pressure on Iran, spooking our partners and diminishing their commitment to the cause."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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