Critics scrutinize Saudi Arabia's human rights record ahead of Trump visit

Critics are concerned that the president isn't paying attention to such abuses.

ByABC News
May 19, 2017, 5:56 AM

— -- President Donald Trump embarks on Friday on his first foreign trip, the timing and itinerary of which are notably different than his predecessors.

Trump’s mid-May departure is three months later than George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, whose first foreign trips were in February, shortly after their inaugurations.

Another stark difference is Trump’s first stop: Saudi Arabia. Bush first traveled to Mexico, Obama to Canada –- a decision typically seen as an honor reserved for America’s closest allies and neighbors.

Saudi Arabia has become a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. Trump welcomed the country’s leader, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the White House in March and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Saudi Arabia in April, laying the groundwork for perhaps a closer relationship with the new administration.

On this trip, Trump is expected to bring together leaders from the Muslim world and announce what the White House is calling for the creation of an “Arab-NATO” to fight terrorism and put pressure on Iran, one of Saudi Arabia’s most despised neighbors in the region.

Trump will also seek to increase investment ties between the two nations, including a $100 billion arms sale from the U.S.

But critics argue that the handshakes and warm smiles ignore Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record. It's unclear if the White House will condemn the Kingdom’s censorship of free speech, indiscriminate incarceration of citizens with no due process, or the lack of basic freedoms for women and girls.

The State Department's Human Rights Report released this year made no secret of Saudi Arabia's numerous human rights abuses, saying, "The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to choose their government; restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and pervasive gender discrimination and lack of equal rights that affected most aspects of women’s lives."

The State Department report also mentioned the Saudi-led coalition to defeat the Houthi rebels in Yemen, whose airstrikes have "resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions."

But there was no mention of human rights in the readout from the White House detailing the discussion between Trump and the Deputy Crown Prince in March.

A State Department official told ABC News that the U.S. works closely with Saudi Arabia and has "routine, cooperative, and productive discussions with senior Saudi officials on a range of bilateral and regional issues."

"We regularly raise human rights concerns with the government of Saudi Arabia as part of our ongoing dialogue," this official said.

Whether Trump will express his concerns on this first foreign trip is to be seen. ABC News looks at some of the human rights abuses plaguing Saudi Arabia.

Free speech

Saudi authorities continue to repress dissidents and restrict free expression.

The country does not allow for the existence of political parties, trade unions, or independent human rights groups. One cannot worship any religion other than Islam in public. And public gatherings, even if they are peaceful, are prohibited.

“They [authorities] harassed, arrested and prosecuted critics, including writers and online commentators, political and women’s rights activists, members of the Shi’a minority, and human rights defenders, imprisoning some after courts sentenced them to prison terms on vague charges,” Amnesty International said in its report on the country.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges related to peaceful activities in 2016 are serving long prison sentences.

Furthermore, HRW reports that by mid-2016, Saudi Arabia had jailed almost every founder of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Two of those who have been jailed were given eight- and nine-year prison sentences for their “peaceful pro-reform advocacy,” HRW said.

Another case that gained international attention was the March imprisonment of journalist Alaa Brinji, who received five years in prison for comments he posted on Twitter that criticized religious authorities and voiced support for women’s rights and human rights activists.

While Saudi Arabia legalized civil society organizations in 2015, the law allows authorities to deny permits to or dissolve them on vague grounds. HRW reported in September that they were “unaware of any registration of an independent human rights group under the new law.”

Criminal justice system

Saudi Arabia arrests, imprisons, and executes citizens it accuses of violating the law, governed by Sharia. Hundreds have been detained for suspected participation in terrorism-related activities.

“Human rights defenders and those who expressed political dissent continued to be equated to ‘terrorists,’” Amnesty said.

Those detained are held for long periods of time, often without due process and cut off from the outside world, despite laws that say detainees should be referred to a court within six months of arrest.

“Authorities do not always inform suspects of the crime with which they are charged, or allow them access to supporting evidence, sometimes even after trial sessions have begun,” HRW said. “Authorities generally do not allow lawyers to assist suspects during interrogation and sometimes impede them from examining witnesses and presenting evidence at trial.”

Punishments frequently include public floggings and executions. Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry said the country executed 144 people between January and mid-November of last year, mostly for murder and terrorism-related offenses. However, twenty-two of those convicted were for non-violent drug offenses.

HRW reports that most of the executions happened by beheading, sometimes in public.

Women’s rights

Women in Saudi Arabia live under a male guardianship system. A man, usually the woman’s husband, father, brother, or son, must give permission for her to obtain a passport, travel, marry, exit prison, access healthcare, and work. In some instances, male permission is needed to rent an apartment or file legal claims.

Women also have inferior status to men when it comes to gaining child custody, filing for divorce, and accessing higher education. They cannot drive.

HRW reported that as of July 2016, most public schools did not offer physical education classes for girls. Although, four women represented Saudi Arabia in the Rio Olympics in August, Saudi women are banned from attending national sporting events.

PHOTO: Saudi women's rights activist Souad al-Shammary puts on a head scarf in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, May 7, 2016.
Saudi women's rights activist Souad al-Shammary puts on a head scarf in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, May 7, 2016.

There are over 3,100 women serving as members of their local council across Saudi Arabia. However, in February, the government ordered the women to be segregated from the men – only able to participate in council meetings via video link, HRW said.

Even so, last month, the United Nations member states elected Saudi Arabia to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which is “dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women,” according to its website.

“Saudi Arabia’s election to the commission, which was supported by 47 states, including at least three European countries, is an affront to the mission of the commission itself and a rebuke to Saudi women,” wrote HRW’s Adam Coogle in April.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.