Promoting Human Rights

Article published Mar 7, 2008

By Nir Boms

An important, yet underreported, summit took place recently in Riyadh. Turki K. Al Sudairy, a Saudi minister and president of the Saudi Supreme Human Rights Commission and Pakistan’s federal minister for human rights, Ansar Burney, conducted a series of high level meetings to discuss human rights in their respective countries.

According to a Pakistani News agency, the ministers, who also represent two member-states in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, discussed human trafficking, slavery, women’s issues and other human rights topics at length.. After a series of meetings, pleasantries, and several fancy dinners, they even agreed to work together to improve a few human rights issues in the region.

Not every country, of course, has a federal minister for human rights or a Supreme Human Rights Commission (an NGO with a government-appointment chairman) – both of which would seem to indicate the importance of human rights to the two governments. The only problem is that, aside from these symbolic discussions, Saudi Arabia remains a world leader in human rights violations and Pakistan is not far behind.

Let me present a brief summary of just a few of the issues that the two leaders failed to discuss: Fuad Al-Farhan, a Saudi blogger and journalist based in Jeddah, was arrested in December 2007 following blog entries he posted in favor of more civil liberties in Saudi Arabia and against a recent wave of political detentions. His family has not been able to contact him since. Nine other activists were arrested in February 2007 after sending a petition to King Abdullah asking for a crackdown on corruption and for a political voice for the average Saudi. One of them, Dr. Saud al-Mokhtar Hashemi, is a physician who, before his arrest, hosted a weekly political discussion group in his home. All nine are still being held in a secret detention center in Jeddah. Official charges have not yet been recorded and a trial date has yet to be set. Saudi law allows detention of an individual for a period of up to 6 months.

Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law and seems to have made impressive progress in its uncompromising struggle against corruption and crime in its society. Two recent beheadings bring to 27 the number of people executed in the kingdom this year. Saudi Arabia beheaded 158 people last year, a sharp increase from the 38 executed in 2006.

Fawzia Falih, a 51-year-old Saudi citizen of Jordanian origin awaiting public execution for witchcraft, may be next on the list. Even before her conviction in April 2006, Falih had been hospitalized as a result of weeks of beatings by the morality police (the Mutaween). Another candidate for execution is Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid who just turned 20. Nafeek is accused of murdering a baby. She says he choked as she was feeding him. She was only 17 at the time and had no access to lawyers during her interrogation nor during her trial. Like Falih, Nafeek retracted a “confession” extracted during police questioning.

Pakistan is not very different. Under the watchful eyes of Minister Burney, judges, lawyers and human rights activists remain forcefully silenced. Following a recent declaration of a State of Emergency, much of the Pakistani Constitution was suspended. Within hours, hundreds of lawyers, human rights activists, and other perceived opponents of General Pervez Musharaff, were arrested under provisions allowing detention without charge or trial.

The new state of emergency appears to have brought little in the way of order. The Asian Human Rights Commission reported on a February extra-judicial killing of 13 men by the authorities in the Sahiwal district in Punjab province. Some of the men were accused of robbery while others were arrested after coming to the police station to inquire about their detained relatives. The Pakistani police appear to have carried out the murders under the guise of “encounter killings” and the bodies were immediately buried without autopsies.

Khalid Khawaja, head of the Defense of Human Rights organization in Pakistan, claims to have documented 521 cases of people who were kidnapped by security agencies since 2001; 422 are still missing. The most recent are two young men, Abdullah and Shaban, who were kidnapped from their homes by security personnel in Faisalabad. The local police refuse to register their family’s complaints.

The human rights records of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, officially western allies, are often overlooked. And that is a pity. It is precisely with these countries that the United States has a chance to make a difference, albeit a small one, by asking some probing questions. Fawzia Falih, Rizana Nafeek and Khalid Khawaja are desperately waiting for that moment and they do not have much time to waste.

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