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Fri 4 Sep 2015 12:56 AM

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King Salman said to have 'failed to improve Saudi rights record'

Human Rights Watch says it has seen 'little sign' that monarch is prepared to end abuses at home

King Salman said to have 'failed to improve Saudi rights record'

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has largely failed to improve his country’s human rights record during his first seven months as ruler, an international human rights group has claimed.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Saudi Arabia has continued to execute people in record numbers, including nonviolent drug offenders; repressed pro-reform activists and peaceful dissidents; failed to take steps to protect the rights of foreign workers; and maintained its systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities.

“We’ve seen little sign in his first seven months that King Salman is prepared to end longstanding abuses at home,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director.

“Abroad, his country’s air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen – with US backing – has included indiscriminate attacks and the use of cluster munitions that may be war crimes.”

The comments come as King Salman prepares to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington DC on Friday.

HRW said Salman’s meeting with Obama will be closely watched in the region and the US. Among the topics that Obama and Salman should discuss is the situation in Yemen where between March and July at least 2,112 civilians have been killed as a result of the armed conflict.

“Obama and Salman should discuss the Saudi-led bombing campaign and agree to end indiscriminate attacks that have killed countless Yemeni civilians,” Whitson said. “The US should recognize that the role it’s playing in military operations in Yemen may also make it responsible for laws-of-war violations by coalition forces.”

At home, HRW said prominent Saudi activists are serving long jail terms for convictions on "vague, overbroad charges" geared to punish them for publicly criticising the government and calling for political and social reform.

“The US rhetoric about ‘countering violent extremism’ while protecting human rights is undermined when it partners with countries like Saudi Arabia that refuse to implement the same ideals at home,” Whitson said.

“If Obama is truly committed to a holistic approach to countering violent extremism, he should press the Saudis to stop muzzling writers, bloggers, and activists.”

The rights group also claimed that Saudi Arabia has not done enought to protect the rights of the country’s nine million foreign workers, many of whom suffer abuses and exploitation, sometimes amounting to conditions of forced labour.

It added that while the kingdom has implemented some reforms affecting women, most recently allowing them to vote in upcoming municipal elections and expanding their employment options, Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system for women remains largely intact despite government pledges to abolish it.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where authorities bar women from driving.

HRW said that under Salman, Saudi Arabia has executed 119 people in seven months, 52 of whom courts convicted for nonviolent drug offenses, a significant increase from 2014, when authorities executed 88.

“Imagine how shocking and horrifying it would be if every Saudi beheading was posted on YouTube?” Whitson said. “Washington, and others in the anti-ISIS coalition, should think long and hard about the example their ally is setting.

“Salman’s visit to Washington should be about more than strategic partnership over Iran,” Whitson added. “If Obama doesn’t raise the harm to civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led campaign, and Saudi repression at home, it will be a huge missed opportunity.”

Arabian Business digital magazine: read the latest edition online