President Obama Raises Human Rights Concerns in Saudi Arabia
Washington, D.C. — Human Rights First today welcomed reports that President Obama raised human rights during meetings with Saudi government leaders yesterday, but urged him to call for the release of jailed activists by name and to meet with Saudi civil society during his trip. Prior to the president’s visit to meet with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino sent a letter to the president calling on him to highlight the repression in Saudi Arabia suffered by independent civil society activists, to make time to meet with members of Saudi civil society, and to call for the release of wrongfully detained prisoners and Saudi human rights activists.
“Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies regularly target voices of peaceful dissent, jail human rights activists, and suffocate space for civil society,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “We urge the president to continue these discussions as he meets with GCC leaders today, to voice his concerns publicly, and to demonstrate the importance of civil society to countering violent extremism by taking time to meet with Saudi civil society leaders.”
Today the president will participate in a GCC Summit with discussions officially focused on security cooperation and multilateral efforts to counter violent extremism. Human Rights First notes that President Obama has repeatedly emphasized support for civil society as a key component of an effective strategy for countering violent extremism, stating during the February 2015 White House Summit that, “When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied — particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines — when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit.”
GCC member states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates regularly target civil society and human rights activists with arbitrary arrests and imprisonment. Human rights abuses are common in Saudi Arabia, including severe restrictions on women’s rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression, the use of harsh punishments that constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and alarming new calls for an expansion of the use of the death penalty for same-sex sexual behavior, among many others. In recent years the Saudi government has clamped down on the activities of peaceful independent civil society activists, targeting those who have spoken up for political reform, religious tolerance, women’s rights, and for an end to discrimination and religious sectarianism.
Human Rights First has also called on the president to press the Saudi government to release wrongfully detained prisoners and Saudi human rights activists Raif Badawi, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Ashraf Fayadh. Badawi, al-Khair, and Fayadh are currently serving prison sentences for supporting freedom of expression and standing up for the rule of law.