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Although Saudi Arabia has been a State party to the Convention against Torture since 1997, the country faces many challenges in order to comply with the human rights standards it has committed to. Authorities continue to arrest, prosecute, and detain human rights defenders for their peaceful activities under the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Law on Combating Cybercrime, which criminalises online criticism of government policies and practices. Most of them are arbitrary detained without charge and without access to a judge. The OMCT often reports cases of arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of human rights defenders.
The death penalty still exists and there is a growing number of executions of people convicted of drug or terrorism offences. This situation is even more alarming because death sentences are in many cases based on confessions that are obtained under torture, which are admissible evidence in Saudi courts – in violation of international standards. Regarding women’s rights, although reforms have modified the discriminatory system of male guardianship and have eased the main restrictions on their right to freedom of movement, they have not abolished the whole guardianship system and women remain inadequately protected from violence, including sexual violence. There are many reports of widespread torture or ill-treatment and trafficking in migrant workers, particularly female domestic workers, under the sponsorship system called kafala, which gives extraordinary power to the employer.
The promises made by the Saudi authorities to introduce reforms is still countered by the reality of the situation of human rights in a country that continues to repress all dissenting views, especially those of human rights defenders who are calling for far-reaching societal reforms. The law still does not guarantee respect for basic rights such as freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Any attempt to set up a movement or an association is brutally crushed. Saudi law is not only rife with vague concepts that leave great leeway for the judges, but the laws meant to fight criminality and terrorism are misused to criminalise the legal expression of any dissenting opinion. Dozens of peaceful defenders, bloggers, lawyers, and activists are now spending long years in prison.