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Legal Rights - SAUDI ARABIA

Although the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared that, with the demise of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia is probably the worst oppressor of religious rights in the world, the Bush Administration decided on political grounds to leave the kingdom off its annual list of "countries of particular concern," an American blacklist of countries that engage in "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of the rights of religious minorities.

Saudi Arabia is a dynastic monarchy, ruled by King Fahd Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud. The country’s constitution is the Koran and the Sunna (tradition) of the prophet Muhammad, and the country is thus governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Because there are no democratic institutions, citizens have no role in the government. Security in the country is enforced by both a secular security force, and the Mutawwa'in, the religious police, who comprise the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. Because the traditional Islamic view of human rights does not coincide with the modern view, the government has allowed both the secular and religious security forces to commit serious abuses.

The Saudi government beheaded 52 people in 2003, for crimes including murder, robbery, drug smuggling, and homosexuality.

Legal Rights

Torture, beatings, and other abuses of prisoners are committed regularly by both the Mutawwa'in and officials in the Ministry of Interior. Additionally, at least one person was killed recently by the Mutawwa'in for a very minor religious violation. Other executions during the year 2000 were for crimes ranging from "deviant sexual behavior" to sorcery, and were carried out by stoning, beheading, or firing squad; additionally, some prisoners were punished by amputations or the loss of an eye. Prisoners are sometimes held for long periods of time without charge or trial.

Freedom of speech and of the press are severely limited in Saudi Arabia – criticizing Islam or the Royal family is illegal, and can result in prolonged imprisonment without trial. Television, radio, internet and literature are all heavily censored. Freedom of assembly and association are also limited, subject to regulations such as the segregation of men and women at meetings.

Treatment of Women

Women are the victims of systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Domestic violence and rape are widespread problems, and women have no redress for such crimes. Women cannot travel, be admitted to a hospital or drive in a car without their husbands’ permission. Buses are segregated, and women must sit in the rear. Those women not wearing an abaya (a black garment covering the entire body) and covering their faces and hair are harassed by the Mutawwa'in.

Laws that discriminate against women include those governing property ownership, testimony in court inheritance, and child custody in cases of divorce. Comprising only five percent of the workplace, it is nearly impossible for women to be employed in any but the simplest of tasks. Also, Female Genital Mutilation is legal and is practiced in some parts of Saudi Arabia.

Women from foreign countries also must adhere to the strict laws in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military has gone so faras to require its female soldiers to wear restrictive clothing, ride in the back seat of cars, and have a male escort when off base. In 2001, the U.S. Air Force's highest ranking female fighter pilot sued the U.S. government to overturn the policy on the grounds that it discriminates against women, violates their religious freedom, and forces them to follow customs required by a religion not their own. The Pentagon subsequently ended the requirement that women wear the black head-to-toe abayas worn by Saudi women, but the other restrictions still apply.

Workers’ Rights

There are no labor laws, unions or collective bargaining in Saudi Arabia. While forced labor is technically illegal, foreign workers and domestic servants are sometimes forced to work up to sixteen hours daily, seven days a week. Pay is often withheld for weeks or months at a time.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that women are sometimes smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work as prostitutes, and children are smuggled in to work in organized begging rings. Officially, trafficking in persons is illegal under Saudi law.

Treatment of Minorities

There is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia. All citizens must be Muslims, and only the Sunni branch of Islam can be practiced publicly. There is institutional discrimination against Shi’a Muslims. Religions other than Islam are tolerated if practiced discreetly; a number of Christians were deported in 2000 because they practiced "apostasy" in too public a manner.

Asian and African workers living in Saudi Arabia report widespread discrimination, and difficulty in the redress of grievances.

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