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'West notoriously silent on Saudi rights abuses'

American Adam Coogle, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, voices some stark criticisms of Saudi-Arabia and its human rights record in an interview with DW's Nina Werkhäuser.

DW: How would you describe the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia?

Adam Coogle: You really have to take it issue by issue. In some areas it is very clear that Saudi-Arabia is making improvements. For example: in terms of women's rights, or in treatment of foreign workers, the situation generally is improving. In other areas, in fact, things are getting much worse. In terms of basic rights, such as free expression, free association, free assembly and freedom of religion, it could not be worse. The situation is absolutely dismal. Almost all of Saudi Arabia's independent activists are in jail serving long sentences. For example, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair is currently serving a 15 year sentence. And what is the sentence for? It is for TV interviews and twitter in which he criticized the Saudi authorities.

Has the situation deteriorated over the past weeks and months?

No, it has been terrible for about four or five years now. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the Saudi authorities have clamped down on all dissent. They have jailed practically their entire human rights community. There is almost no one left who is not in jail.

What are the most serious deficits in their justice system?

Adam Coogle

Adam Coogle

Saudi justice is arbitrary. The country has no written penal code. Generally, there is no written law. So "breaking allegiance to the ruler" is a common charge against political dissidents and activists. But there is no document that actually states what "breaking allegiance to the ruler" means, or what the punishment should be. So that is up to the interpretation of the individual judges.

Could you give an example?

There is this poet Ashraf Fayadh who was sentenced to death for apostasy. His initial sentence was four years in jail and 800 lashes. An appeals court rejected that judgement and gave him the death penalty.

Earlier this week the case was reexamined and the judges gave him eight years and 800 lashes. So, you have the same crime, the same evidence, the same case - the first judge gave four years and a lashing, the second judge gave the death penalty and the third judge gave eight years and 800 lashes. The fact that you can have that much variation and arbitrariness in your justice system proves they have some serious problems.

Does a person who is on trial have the right to defend him or herself?

In Saudi Arabia you have the right to defend yourself. Generally, people are allowed to have lawyers defend them at trial. However, you cannot have a fair trial on principle, if the charges are speech crimes. If you are accused of criticizing Saudi authorities and facing a jail sentence based on that, there is no way to defend yourself. In Saudi court trials you never get an analysis of whether what the person said was actually a crime, because by definition it shouldn't be a crime. The only thing you can argue is whether or not you made the statement you are accused of making.

Do you think politicians from western countries have an influence on the regime, especially on the human rights situation? Have their visits helped to improve the situation?

No. Western countries have always been notoriously silent on Saudi human rights abuses. Westeners have always been scared of offending the Saudis. The truth of the matter is: No country has leverage over Saudi Arabia. However, if countries are to include human rights as an integral part of the way that they approach Saudi Arabia it could play a positive role in moderating Saudi behavior. So, for example, if Germany says: we are not going to sell tanks any more until you clean up your human rights abuses that sends them a message. That's positive.

The German opposition criticized Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier for traveling to Saudi Arabia only a few weeks after the execution of Shiite spiritual leader Nimr al Nimr and 46 other prisoners.

That kind of criticism is new. If he had gone five years ago nobody would have said anything. At least in Europe things are actually becoming more contentious. I think that's probably something that will catch Saudi Arabia's attention - and maybe they will want to clean up their image.

Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, which he joined in 2010. He has written extensively on his investigations into human rights abuses in the region. Adam received an M.A. in Arab Studies at Georgetown University in 2009, focusing on cultural anthropology in the MENA region. While at Georgetown, he completed a 15 month residency in Damascus, where he studied Arabic and worked with Iraqi refugees for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was a Fulbright fellow in Jordan during 2005 and 2006, conducting research and studying Arabic.

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