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G20 host Saudi under fire over human rights

Saudi Arabia is under fire [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 November, 2020

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Saudi Arabia, the first Arab state to host a G20 summit, has faced disapproval over its human rights record.
Saudi Arabia, the first Arab state poised to host a G20 summit, has faced intense criticism over its human rights record -- from the jailing of women activists to enforced disappearances.

Campaigners and relatives of jailed activists have urged world leaders to boycott next weekend's virtual summit or to press Saudi rulers for answers.

The government has sought to shake off his country's ultra-conservative image by allowing cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and greater freedoms for women, including the right to drive.

Here's a look at three other major reforms introduced as the kingdom seeks to improve its human rights record:

Women's 'guardianship'

In August last year, Saudi Arabia allowed women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and travel abroad without seeking the approval of their "guardians" -- fathers, husbands or other male relatives.

The move ended a longstanding rule that prompted many extreme attempts by Saudi women to flee the kingdom.

But it is easy to sidestep the reform, campaigners including Human Rights Watch (HRW) say. 

While allowing travel documents, Saudi Arabia has still not done away with "taghayyub" -- a legal provision that means "absent" in Arabic and which has long been used to constrain women who leave home without permission.

Taghayyub -- often a tool against a young generation of what arch-conservatives call "disobedient daughters" -- effectively obstructs women from breaking free from abusive guardians.

Guardians can file a police complaint that their female relatives are "absent", which would lead to their arrest and possible detention in prison-like shelters, HRW says.

Death penalty for minors

In April, the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) said the kingdom was ending the death penalty for those convicted of crimes committed while aged under 18.

Citing a royal decree, the HRC said individuals convicted as minors would receive a prison sentence of no more than 10 years in a juvenile detention facility.

The reform, in a country that has one of the world's highest rate of executions, was widely welcomed by campaigners.

But last month, campaign group Reprieve said a Saudi court had proceeded with a case against a child defendant at risk of the death penalty, "totally undermining" the government's claim to have implemented the reform.

In a hearing, public prosecutors moved forward with a case against Mohammed al-Faraj, who was 15 when he was arrested outside a bowling alley in the city of Medina in 2017.

The charges against him include participating in demonstrations and funeral processions, as well as chanting slogans against the state, according to HRW.

Labour reform

This month, Saudi Arabia said it will ease key restrictions on millions of foreign workers, under reforms to its "kafala" sponsorship system that is blamed for widespread abuses and exploitation.

The system has been described by critics as a modern form of slavery that binds workers to their employers, whose permission is required to enter and exit the kingdom as well as to change jobs.

The Saudi human resources and social development ministry said that from March 14, foreign workers in the private sector will no longer need their employers' authorisation to change jobs, travel or leave Saudi Arabia.

The reform comes as the petro-state seeks to boost its private sector as part of a plan to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

However, the new regulations will not apply to the country's 3.7 million domestic workers, including maids and drivers -- a highly vulnerable category of employees who often complain of abuse by their employers.

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