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The diminutive co-founder of Code Pink has become famous for fearlessly tackling head-on subjects the left and right studiously avoid. Sometimes, she does so in personas at President Obama's speech at the National Defense College, or in Egypt, where she was assaulted by police. Here, she's researching the sinister nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
In seven succinct chapters followed by a meditation on prospects for change, Benjamincited by the L.A. Times as "one of the high profile members of the peace movement"shines a light on one of the weirder, and most important, elements of our foreign policy. What is the origin of this strange alliance between two countries that have very little in common? Why does it persist, and what are its consequences? Why, over a period of decades and across various presidential administrations, has the United States consistently supported a regime shown time and again to be one of the most powerful forces working against American interests? Saudi Arabia is perhaps the single most important source of funds for terrorists worldwide, promoting an extreme interpretation of Islam along with anti-Western sentiment, while brutally repressing non-violent dissidents at home.
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About the Author
Medea Benjamin is one of America's best-known 21st century activists. Co-founder of Code Pink and the fair trade advocacy group Global Exchange, she is the author of Drone Warfare (OR Books and Verso) and has played an active role in the Green Party (most notably as their candidate for US Senate in California, running against Dianne Feinstein). A frequent contributor to Alternet, she has a Master’s Degree in both Public Health and Economics. In 2012, she was awarded the US Peace Memorial Foundation´s Peace Prize in recognition of her "creative leadership on the front lines of the anti-war movement." She is also recipient of the 2014 Gandhi Peace Award and the 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She is mother of two children, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
excerpt from Chapter 2, Human Rights Abuses (please note: final has footnotes)
...Looking at basic freedoms such as free speech, free association or a fair judicial system, Saudi Arabia flunks on all levels. Freedom House, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that tracks human rights, year after year rates Saudi Arabia as "not free" and gives it the lowest possible score, in a league with countries such as North Korea, Syria and Sudan.
What about freedom of expression?
The Basic Law of Governance says that the press must be “civil and polite.” In reality, civil and polite means the media must conform to the dictates of the rulers and submit to a severe system of monitoring and control. It also means that Saudi authorities regularly pursue charges against people based on their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.
Intolerance of dissent, be it political, religious or ideological, remains almost total. Saudi jails are crowded with those whose only crime is to speak freely. One of many examples is the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi writer and creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals. Arrested in 2012 on a charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels”, Badawi faced numerous charges, including apostasy. In 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. In 2014, his sentence was increased to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine. The first 50 lashes were administered in January; thanks to international attention to his case, the remaining lashes have been postponed. Badawi is known to have hypertensionand his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who took refuge in Canada with their three children after her life was threatened in Saudi Arabia, has said that her husband will not be able to survive further floggings.
The government keeps a tight lid on domestic media content and dominates regional print and satellite-television coverage, with members of the royal family owning major stakes in news outlets. Government officials have banned journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive to the religious establishment or the ruling authorities. A 2011 royal decree amended the press law to criminalize any criticism of the country’s grand mufti, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or government officials; violations can result in fines and forced closure of media outlets.
The internet has given the public access to an enormous new source of diverse information, and by 2015 there were 12 million internet users in Saudi Arabia. But a 2011 law requires all blogs and websites, or anyone posting news or commentary online, to have a license from the Ministry of Information. The government regularly sweeps the internet, blocking access to websites it deems immoral or politically sensitive. This can range from sites with “atheistic content” to sites that advocate the right of Saudi women to drive.
The government also monitors the Twitter accounts of human rights activists and users with large followings, and has arrested people for their tweets.
Many writers and activists have been incarcerated for using the internet to express their views. In February 2014, a court convicted Wajdi al-Ghazzawi, owner of the satellite broadcaster Al-Fajr Media Group, of "harming the nation's image". The 12-year prison sentence included a five-year term under Article 6 of the country's cybercrime law, which criminalizes the production of material impinging on public order and public morals. The court also banned him for life from appearing on media outlets and forbade him from leaving the country for 20 years.
In October 2014, three lawyers Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih were sentenced to prison terms of up to eight years to be followed by bans on travel abroad after being convicted of “impinging public order” by using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice. The court also banned them indefinitely from using any media outlets, including social media.
“It is inconceivable that mere criticism in statements and on social media could land someone in jail for more than a decade, but that’s the sad reality in Saudi Arabia,” said Sarah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
The government has also gone after major businesses. It blocked the online messaging company Viber because it refused to give the government access to the private data of its customers. In December 2013, General Commission for Audiovisual Media announced plans to monitor the content of YouTube, a task that seems impossible given that by 2015 there were some 90 million page views every day from Saudi Arabia.
Cultural manifestations from books to movies to art are controlled. Authorities regularly ban books; more than 10,000 copies of books were confiscated at the annual book fair in Riyadh in 2014.
Movie theaters were banned in the 1980s to appease conservative clerics. There have been constant rumors that cinemas would re-open, but by 2016 they remained closed. The first Saudi feature film directed by a woman, entitled Wadjda, was presented to great acclaim at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but it was impossible to watch the film in a theater in Saudi Arabia.
The ban on movie theaters makes little sense because nowadays Saudis can turn on the TV and watch movies from Hollywood to Bollywood, or they can download movies on the internet.
The regime also tries to control the foreign press. It regularly denies foreign reporters entry visas. When reporters are allowed in the country, they are under the thumb of government minders who make it nearly impossible to talk freely to ordinary people. Additionally, if they file stories the government considers hostile, they might will find themselves booted out or refused entry the next time.
Saudi nationals who give interviews to foreign correspondents may also face severe consequences. Prominent Eastern Province activist Fadhil al-Manasif was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a 15-year ban on travel abroad, and a large fine on April 2014 on charges that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news,” and “circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him.” The charges arose from al-Manasif’s assistance to international media covering the 2011 protests in Eastern Province.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) regularly decries Saudi citizen journalists’ jail terms and writing bans. Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia near the bottom of its global free press index, coming in at 164th out of 180 countries.
What about freedom of association?
Political parties are forbidden, and organized political opposition exists only outside the country. Political dissent is criminalized. All public gatherings, including demonstrations, remain prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those who defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
Saudi officials deny holding political prisoners, but thousands of activists have disappeared into the black hole of Saudi prisons without charge. Saudis are often caught in a revolving door of detention, release and detention, making it hard to clearly call someone a detainee or to track numbers.
Even lawyers who defend human rights activists are in danger. The country’s terrorism court convicted human rights lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, to a 15-year prison sentence in 2014 for criticizing Saudi human rights abuses in media interviews and on social media, and for defending many peaceful activists, including jailed blogger Raif Badawi. Abu al-Khair’s wife, Samar Badawi, has faced a ban on travel abroad since December 2014, apparently due to her advocacy on behalf of her husband at the UN Human Rights Council earlier that year.
In reality, Saudi authorities maintain their iron grip on power through the systematic and ruthless persecution of peaceful activists. According to Amnesty International, “Peaceful human rights activists have been routinely harassed, rounded up like criminals and often ill-treated in detention as the Saudi Arabian authorities go to extreme lengths to hound critics into silent submission.”
In 2009, a group of 11 courageous human rights activists and academics founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) to act as one of the country’s few independent human rights organizations. It advocated for an elected parliament and legal institutions that would be transparent and accountable. It also advocated for the rights of Saudi citizens to have basic freedoms of expression and assembly, and campaigned for the release or fair trial of long-term political detainees.
During the next few years, the Saudi authorities began targeting the founders, one by one, in a brutal campaign to silence them and break up the association. By 2014, three of the founders were serving prison terms of up to 15 years, three were awaiting trial, three more were facing a re-trial and two others were detained without trial. Some members were tortured while in detention; others were held incommunicado and in solitary confinement for several months. They were charged with Orwellian crimes under the anti-terrorism laws such as “disobeying the ruler”, “undermining the integrity of the state” and “inciting public opinion against the authorities”. The government dissolved the group in 2013 and seized its assets for the crime of “failing to obtain a licence”a license that the government had refused to grant.
While it is legal to establish a charitable non-governmental group, Saudi citizens have long struggled to legally establish and register non-charity, non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While the government has allowed registration for some professional groups and trade associations, it has routinely refused to license political or human rights groups. Members of such groups have been left open to prosecution for participating in unregistered organizations.
Civil society has been anemic because of this restrictive, cumbersome legal framework and capricious implementation. But in December 2015, for the first time in the kingdom’s history, the government issued a new law providing a legal framework for non-charity NGOs. How this law will be put into practice and whether it helps create a more open civil society remains to be seen.
No laws protect the rights to form independent labor unions, bargain collectively, or engage in strikes. Workers who engage in union activity are subject to dismissal or imprisonment. When the International Trade Union Confederation launched its 2015 Global Rights Index detailing the ten worst countries for workers’ rights in the world, Saudi Arabia was one of the ten. The abysmal ranking is largely attributable to the exploitation of migrant workers, as detailed in a later chapter.
How fair is the judiciary?
As in many Islamic nations, Saudi Arabia's legal system is based on judges interpreting sharia law (Islamic law). The particular Saudi version, however, is one of the strictest interpretations of Islamic law in the modern age. In matters not clearly defined in the Koran or the hudud, a section of sharia law on serious crimes, judges are supposed to consider precedents set by other judges and laws implemented by the government, but they have vast discretion. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly worded regulations, judges and prosecutors are free to criminalize a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”
The strict use of Islamic law, the lack of checks and balances, the wide breadth of judges’ discretion, the sweeping anti-terrorism and criminal lawsall result in a judicial system that is rife with arbitrary arrests, long periods of detention without charges or trials, unfair trials, confessions extracted under torture, arbitrariness and restricted access to defense attorneys.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia instituted a sweeping new “anti-terrorism” law (The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing), along with a series of royal decrees designed to criminalize virtually all dissident thought or free expression as terrorism. The law considers such acts as “calling for atheist thought,” “contacting any groups or individuals opposed to the Kingdom”, as well as “seeking to disrupt national unity” by calling for protests, and “harming other states and their leaders” as terrorist acts. This far-reaching law grants extensive powers to the interior minister that undermine the due process rights of the accused in existing Saudi law. It empowers the minister to order arrests of terrorism suspects without going through the public prosecutor, as well as full powers to access the suspect’s private banking and communications information, all without judicial oversight. It gives the Specialized Criminal Court the authority to hear witnesses and experts without the presence of the defendant or the defendant’s lawyer. Two days after the terrorism law came into force, King Abdullah issued Royal Decree 44, which criminalizes “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” with prison sentences of between three and 20 years. “King Abdullah was once considered a cautious reformer but the new terrorism law could wipe out a decade of the most modest progress,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of loosening the reins on Saudi society, the king is empowering criminal justice authorities to arrest and try peaceful activists along with suspected terrorists.”
How common is the use of torture and the death penalty, including beheadings?
Torture is banned by law, but according to former detainees and human rights advocates, torture and ill-treatment by police and prison officials are widespread and administered with impunity. Courts have convicted defendantsand even sentenced them to deathsolely on the basis of pre-trial “confessions”, without investigating their claims that these confessions were extracted under torture. Access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited. The government, for example, denies access to Amnesty International and has even taken punitive action against activists and family members of victims who contact the organization.
Authorities do not always inform suspects of the crime with which they are charged or allow them access to supporting evidence, even after trial sessions have begun in some cases. Authorities generally do not allow lawyers to assist suspects during interrogation, and often impede them from examining witnesses and presenting evidence at trial.
As punishment for many offences, the courts impose sentences of public flogging, a barbaric practice that inflicts tremendous pain. Human rights defender Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari was sentenced to 200 lashes, as well as a prison term, for advocating reforms. In 2014, Ruth Cosrojas, a Filipino domestic worker, was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment and 150 lashes after an unfair trial where she was convicted of organizing the sale of sex. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said: “Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment. Such punishment is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the Convention against Torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified.”
The Saudi continued use of torture makes a mockery of the international convention, just as the Saudi seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 makes a mockery of the Council itself. The UN is unable to hold countries, including the United States, accountable for the use of torture to gain information from prisoners because member states reign supreme in the world body except when penalised by the Security Council....
Table of Contents
1. The Founding of the Saudi State
2. Human Rights Abuses
3. Freedom of Religion
4. The Rights of Women
5. Saudi Foreign Workers
6. Spreading Wahhabism, Supporting Extremism
7. The History of US-Saudi Relations
8. Saudi Foreign Policy
Conclusion: Prospects for Change