Saudi officials have been refusing to register human rights groups, leaving members subject to criminal prosecution for “setting up an unregistered organization.,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
HRW urges Saudi authorities to stop blocking the registration of human rights organizations and other independent groups and pass an associations law that gives groups the right to operate without undue government interference.
On August 28, 2013, founders of the Adala Center for Human Rights received an appeals court verdict affirming the Social Affairs Ministry’s denial of registration. The ministry said it can only license charitable organizations, and that Adala’s activities are not covered under the ministry’s definition of a charity. It was the latest in a series of such refusals to register human rights groups.
“Saudi Arabia created a catch 22 situation and is exploiting it to harass and prosecute human rights activists,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director. “The authorities should immediately pass an associations law that meets international standards, and let independent human rights and other activists operate without harassment.”
Saudi officials have spoken of passing an associations law that would permit the formation of non-charity organizations. The Social Affairs Ministry in 2006 submitted a first draft to the Shura Council, the highest advisory body to the king. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the Shura Council approved an amended version and submitted it to the Council of Ministers for final approval in 2008, but the ministers have taken no action since studying the law in 2009. The most recent version would allow groups to operate only under highly restrictive conditions.
The Adala Center for Human Rights is based in Eastern Province – and is dedicated, in the words of its website, to “spreading a culture of human rights and capacity building,” “strengthening the relationship between rights groups and the media,” “monitoring and documenting human rights cases,” and “supporting victims of abuses.” Activists who established the center submitted a registration application to the Social Affairs Ministry in December 2011.
In the absence of an associations law, the ministry regulates nongovernmental groups in accordance with the Regulation on Charitable Associations and Foundations (Council of Ministers decision no. 107 of 1990). Article 2 authorizes the ministry to register charitable, educational, cultural, and health associations that “are related to humanitarian services and do not have the goal of obtaining material profit.”
In December 2011 the ministry notified Adala that it had rejected its application on the basis that its objectives are “not in line with the regulation on charitable foundations and associations.”
In April 2012, members of the center filed a lawsuit against the ministry before an administrative court, contending that the objectives of “education, spreading a culture of human rights,” and “educating people about their rights and duties as citizens” do not contradict the provisions of article 2. Adala’s lawyer noted that establishment of the center falls in line with the first objective of King Abdullah’s Ninth Development Plan, issued in 2009, which aims to “guarantee human rights,” among other objectives.
Following a 13-month court battle, a panel of three administrative court judges unanimously rejected Adala’s claim on May 27, 2013, upholding the ministry’s position. The judgment, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, also took issue with Adala’s stated reliance on principles of international human rights law, saying, “It is known for certain that many of [these] laws are not in agreement with Islamic Law, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country whose constitution is the book of God [the Qur’an] and the Sunna of his messenger…”
Adala appealed the ruling on July 9, but a Saudi appeals court upheld the administrative court ruling on August 28. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that Adala may close its doors in the absence of the passage of an associations law that would allow the group to acquire legal standing.
“As Saudi Arabia openly campaigns for a seat next year on the UN Human Rights Council, member states should take notice that a Saudi court has ruled that certain human rights standards are not applicable in the kingdom,” Stork said. “Freedom of association is a bedrock human rights principle, yet it is impossible to exercise that right in Saudi Arabia.”