The Saudi authorities continue to target activists and human rights defenders through various possible ways, like silencing, arresting and imprisoning them with people convicted of criminal charges, and subjecting them to unfair trial. Adding to that their deprivation of the most basic right that a prisoner can have behind bars – that is the right to health care, including medical treatment. These are among the rights that are most systematically violated with no mechanisms in place for protection or accountability.

The right to health care is especially critical for women detainees. Nurse and activists, Naima Al-Matrood, age 42, was arrested on 13 April 2016. She is the first woman to be trialed for taking part in pro-reform demonstrations in Al-Qatif governorate in 2011. Naima’s trial began on 10 April 2017 at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. According to human rights reports, Naima’s health condition deteriorated while in detention. She was diagnosed with anemia and did not receive medical attention for her condition. This damaged her vision. The reports also indicate that Naima was subjected to torture from the beginning of her detention at Dammam prison.

Natheer Al-Majed, age 40, is a writer from Al-Qatif governorate. For several years, Natheer has raised human rights issues in the kingdom. On 18 January 2017, Natheer was arrested at the Specialized Criminal Court and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for charges such as disobeying the ruler, participating in demonstrations, writing articles – some dating back to 2007 – and other charges related to freedom of opinion and expression. After the sentencing, Natheer was transferred to Al-Ha’ir Prison. According to reliable reports received by the Gulf Center for Human Rights, human rights defenders are held with criminal convicts in Saudi prisons, including at Al-Ha’ir prison in Riyadh. The facility is overcrowded and human rights defenders have complained about limited living and sleeping space, poor nutrition conditions, insufficient medical care and other sanitation concerns. In its annual report, Human Rights Situation in Saudi Arabia 2016, Al-Qst, an independent non-government organization, documented the case of Abdullah al-Anzi’s who died in Al-Ha’ir prison on 25 February 2016 after being hit with a metal rod on his head. This happened when a fight broke out between prison gangs, which Abdullah was not a part of.

Saudi Arabia forcibly returned Muhammad Al-Otaibi, a human rights defender and founding member of the Union for Human Rights (UHR), to Qatar on 25 May 2017, where he risks being arrested and tried for charges related to his human rights work. According to reliable sources, who attended the fifth session of his trial at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh on 12 July 2017, throughout his two-month detention, Muhammad was not allowed to visit a doctor to receive a prescription for pain caused by liver problems despite his demands to see one for a month and a half. Further, he was not given his eyeglasses, without which he can’t read or write properly.

A group of prominent activists and human rights defenders called through the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which they formed in 2009, for political reform and for the establishment of a government based on principles such as the rule of law, popular representation, judicial independence and accountability. The organization was dissolved and the activists were arbitrarily arrested and tried before Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court, the Specialized Criminal Court. The court gave them long prison sentences. All members complained about the conditions of their imprisonment and discriminatory treatment against them. They are held in overcrowded prisons that can accommodate 80 prisoners only. Today, these prisons accommodate more than 300 inmates. Overcrowding has devastating health effects. Inmates complain of poor food quality and sleeping on the ground without mattresses or blankets, and standing in long lines to use the bathroom. Members of the association are held with other convicts, including prisoners serving sentences for violent crime. It should be noted that Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners issued by the United Nations has specified the need to “separate different categories of prisoners in different facilities or different sections in the same facility, taking into account gender, age, criminal record, the legal reason for holding the prisoner, and the necessities of their treatment.”

At least four of members of the association went on a hunger strike to protest deteriorating prison conditions and ill-treatment. Mohammed Saleh Al-Bejadi went on multiple hunger strikes. He claims that he was subjected to force-feeding that caused stomach pains and weight loss. The authorities also denied Mohammed’s request for medical treatment. Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamed and Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, who were detained in wards specified for criminals, also staged a hunger strike. The authorities responded by placing Dr. Mohammed in solitary confinement. Dr. Abdullah, age 69, was transferred multiple times to different wards, some in poor sanitary conditions. He is currently held in a prison section for foreign inmates, most of whom do not speak Arabic. Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Hamed announced his hunger strike two weeks after his arrest to protest arbitrary detention. He was suffering from diabetes and needed to get daily insulin injections and undergo regular checkups at the hospital. According to his legal representative, the prison authorities failed on multiple occasions to transfer Dr. Abdul Rahman to the hospital. Dr. Abdul Rahman was not given insulin injections on time. He is currently suffering from headaches and vision problems.

Human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia are paying a heavy price for their pro-reform demands. Prison itself is not the last stage of their punishment, but only an episode that is followed by systematic violations of their basic rights. Ill-treatment, torture, lack of health care, and holding them with criminals and inmates with contagious disease are means to degrade the human dignity of human rights defenders. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” In 1955, the United Nations adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners setting minimum requirements for prisoners and recognizing their right to receive health care. The United Nations Economic and Social Council approved the 94 rules of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Protection of Prisoners, which in 1977 was extended to apply to prisoners held without charge in places other than prisons. The above-mentioned treaties and conventions require that prison authorities provide safe and healthy living conditions for all prisoners, protect them against violence and coercion, and providing them with health care and medicines. This includes taking primary health-care measures, detecting and treating sexually transmitted diseases for the purpose of reducing the risk of HIV transmission, following-up with medical treatment administered outside the prison and considering the provision of beginning a treatment inside the prison.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that prisoners have the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. In contrast, many Saudi prisons suffer from severely overcrowded conditions. In 2009, the Guardian published a report on the experience of Niaz Ahmed, an academic and journalist, inside Saudi prisons. Ahmed was held at a facility in Jeddah with 1,500 other prisoners in “halls that look like warehouses. Without air conditioning or fans, temperatures can go up to 50 degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit].” In another case, in August 2010, five detainees died of alleged suffocation due to overcrowding in the Jizan Departure Center. In 2012, a leaked videotape recorded at Berman Prison in Jeddah again raised concerns about overcrowding, as prisoners were found to be crammed together in a prison room. In May 2013, Prisons Director-General, Major General Ali Al-Harthy, acknowledged that the central prisons in Riyadh, Makkah and Jeddah exceeded their capacity by three times.

In the light of the above information, it is clear that the situation of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia contradicts the provisions of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which clearly states in Article 63(1), “ The fulfilment of these principles requires individualization of treatment and for this purpose a flexible system of classifying prisoners in groups; it is therefore desirable that such groups should be distributed in separate institutions suitable for the treatment of each group. ” Article 67(a) explains the objective further as it states, “To separate from others those prisoners who, by reason of their criminal records or bad characters, are likely to exercise a bad influence.”

The Saudi authorities must honor their international obligations by dropping all legal prosecutions against human rights defenders and allowing them to exercise their rights and pursue their peaceful activities without fearing trial or imprisonment. The Saudi authorities must also take all necessary measures to improve prison conditions in accordance with recognized international standards that ensure the safety of the prisoners.

Salma Al-Moussawi

Friday, 14 July 2017

Research and Documentation Coordinator at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain