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Saudi rights groups unite to urge reforms under King Salman

A group of Saudi-run organisations have issued a joint statement outlining a nine-point plan to improve human rights protection
Activists protest against the flogging of Raif Badawi in front of Saudi Arabia's embassy in Berlin (AFP)

A group of independent Saudi-run rights organisations released a statement on Monday assessing the record of the late King Abdullah and setting out a nine-point plan for improving protection of human rights in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The joint statement listed the international human rights treaties signed during the rule of Abdullah, who died on 23 January, and concluded that Saudi Arabia remains “among the worst countries for human rights”.

Abdullah’s reign “has seen more arbitrary arrests for men, women and children; narrowing of freedoms in the public and (on the) internet; legislation of law that have contributed to more repression and sanctions,” the statement read, signed by four organisations all based outside Saudi Arabia and which represent various sects and ideologies.

The Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (Toronto), ALQST (London), European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (Berlin), and Dewany Civil Office of the Ombudsman (Geneva) said they had been “continuously banned from legitimate civic participation” in the Gulf state.

Ali Dubaisy, head of the European-Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), said the groups are working well together and that by living outside the country they are free from a “government operation” to divide people along sectarian lines.

“There are now more than 30 Saudis in the opposition who are living outside the country,” he said. “We don’t see any conflict between Sunni and Shiites, we are all friends and we work together. We are free now.”

“We work closely together as human rights groups to improve coverage of abuses at home. We are a small group of people and we don’t have much power - but maybe, by thinking in smart ways, we can begin to build a movement to challenge the abuses being carried out by the al-Sauds.”

The rights groups jointly called on King Salman and the “new management of the Saudi government” to implement wide-ranging changes to foster a climate of respect for human rights.

The nine-point plan called for, among other things, the release of all political prisoners - estimated by activists to number 30,000 - and an improvement in working conditions for some 9 million migrants in Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has come under increasing criticism for its treatment of dissidents, particularly in light of jailed liberal blogger Raif Badawi being sentenced to 1,000 lashes for charges including insulting Islam.

King Salman has been swift as ruler to appoint a slew of his own men to senior positions within the kingdom, seen by analysts as reasserting the power of his Sudairi clan within the royal family. Interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef has been made deputy crown prince and Salman’s son Mohammed is now the country’s defence minister and head of royal court.

However, the ESOHR’s Dubaisy said that despite changes in government he sees little hope for a change of tact towards human rights issues under Salman’s rule.

“Salman’s mentality will be to protect the power of the royal family,” he said. “If we think Salman will do things differently (to Abdullah) when it comes to human rights, then there is no doubt we would be wrong.”