Saudi Arabia Bridles as Rights Group Charges Widespread Abuses
March 28, 2000 By Susan Sachs CAIRO, March 26 -- In a sharply worded report, Amnesty International today accused the government of Saudi Arabia of widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, the torture of detainees and the barring of prisoner access to family members or lawyers. The group said it has received and published graphic accounts of mistreatment, discrimination against religious minorities, and suppression of political dissent in the Persian Gulf kingdom for years. But Saudi Arabia has escaped international condemnation for its record, Amnesty officials added, because oil-dependent nations like the United States have not wanted to offend the kingdom's rulers. Saudi officials, who rarely respond to outside critics, this time reacted swiftly, emphatically rejecting Amnesty's findings as biased and inaccurate. "We have nothing to hide in human rights," said Prince Turki bin Mohammedi, the deputy foreign minister responsible for international organizations, in a telephone interview from the Saudi capital Riyadh. "There is no harm in having their point of view, but they have to be more accurate in their information." The executive director of Amnesty's United States affiliate, William F. Schulz, said the human rights organization would try to spotlight the Saudi record through a worldwide publicity campaign this year. "Amnesty International does launch one or two major campaigns a year aimed at countries with particularly serious human rights violations," said Mr. Schulz. "In the case of Saudi Arabia, the country has gotten away with arbitrary detention and torture for years, while escaping international scrutiny." The campaign will begin on Tuesday with a truck-mounted billboard-the most aggressive tactic ever used by Amnesty's American office-that will be driven around Washington. The billboard will feature an amputated hand over the slogan: "This suffering is the secret of Saudi justice." "What this research clearly reveals is that people who are arrested in Saudi Arabia for whatever reason find themselves trapped in a criminal justice system that provides them with no information about their fate, allows them no prompt contact with their families or a doctor, and offers them no hope of contacting a lawyer," the report said. In response to a request for comment on the Amnesty report, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the country's laws already provide stringent guidelines for how the police and security officials should deal with prisoners and people they arrest. It also said that, contrary to the human rights group's report, most trials are open to the public, conducted according to Saudi law, and that prison conditions are fair. The State Department, in its annual report on human rights practices in various countries around the world, has carefully raised criticisms of life in Saudi Arabia similar to those cited in the Amnesty report. Saudi Arabia 'buys silence' on abuse Amnesty: Saudis suffer under "secret justice system" Saudi Arabia is guilty of widespread human rights abuses and spends a fortune on US public relations firms to cover up violations, the UK-based human rights group Amnesty International (AI) says. The group is launching a six month worldwide campaign against "arbitrary arrest, torture and executions" in the kingdom coinciding with a report published on Tuesday entitled Saudi Arabia: A Secret State of Suffering. The suffering, according to AI, stems primarily from the secrecy that shrouds the Saudi criminal justice system, while an oil-dependant international community sits back in silence. The kingdom - which is the world's biggest oil producer - spent more than $1m in 1999 on public relations firms to ensure secrecy about abuses of human rights. AI says the state structure in Saudi Arabia is permeated by secrecy and fear. Victims and witnesses are too scared to talk and anyone who dares voice dissent is harshly punished. "Anyone not in a position of power or influence caught in the web of the criminal justice system is at risk of state abuse of power," the group says. "Once trapped in this web, there is only one guaranteed outcome - their basic human rights will be violated." The most common violations occur against migrant workers, religious minorities and women, the group says. Saudi Arabia has in the past rejected previous Amnesty reports. There has been no response to Tuesday's report so far. Washington march Amnesty supporters are planning to march between the Saudi Embassy in Washington, the US State Department and public relations firms employed by the Saudi Government and the US State Department. A week ago the group lobbied the United Nations human rights commission to put aside political and economic considerations and scrutinise the kingdom's human rights record. Punishments in Saudi Arabia include death by beheading, amputation and flogging, and AI says these can be handed down "after trials that make a mockery of justice". Saudi Arabia is said to have one of the highest rates of execution in the world, averaging two a week, but AI says it provides no information on how victims had been tried. According to reports the group has compiled over the last two decades, some defendants were tortured into signing a confession, then beheaded. "Incommunicado detention, a criminal justice system which from the outset treats suspects as guilty, and the lack of independent mechanisms for reporting torture and investigations into allegations, all foster a climate of impunity," it says. Abused minorities AI says Christians, Sikhs and other minorities are subject to discrimination and are targeted by security forces. "Political and religious opponents of the government, migrant workers, women and other powerless individuals emerge as consistent victims of discrimination," it added. Amnesty accuses Saudi Arabia of failing to meet international human rights obligations despite having signed several treaties. Political groups and trade unions are banned in the kingdom and the authorities do not tolerate any form of public dissent.
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