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Voices / Column

List of shame

Brutality, barbaric punishments, and what we don’t talk about when we talk about Saudi Arabia

Elayne Clift has written about women, politics and social justice issues from the earliest days of this newspaper. For more of her work, visit elayne-clift.com/blog/.

Saxtons River

The brutal execution of U.S. resident and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey has illuminated the government of Saudi Arabia as nothing else has.

And finally, some media has paid attention to the Saudi regime’s ongoing slaughter and starvation of children and adults in Yemen in the U.S.-backed conflict that began because of a failed political transition meant to bring stability to the country following a 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

Both of these issues urgently require attention, especially the humanitarian crisis facing Yemen.

According to the United Nations, since 2015, an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict and almost 40,000 civilians have been injured. More than half the dead and wounded have been victims of Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition air strikes.

According to UNICEF, more than 6,500 children have been killed or injured since the conflict began, and more than 22 million people, nearly all children, are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The U.N. Human Rights Council calls Yemen’s civilians “the victims of unrelenting violations of international humanitarian law.”

* * *

But also happening in Saudi Arabia is something else that we never hear about — and it involves another kind of brutality that leads to state-sanctioned murder in the most hideous ways.

Recently, for example, an Indonesian woman, Tuti Tursilawati, was beheaded by the Saudi government seven years after being sentenced to death for killing her employer as he tried raping her. The young mother was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, one of several Indonesian maids executed by the regime for similar acts of self-defense.

Domestic workers face a range of abuses in their employers’ homes. They are overworked, suffer forced confinement, and are often deprived of food. Frequently they are not paid, and they are often victims of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

If they attempt to report abuses, they can face prosecution for false claims of theft and “black magic,” according to one New York Times report.

Women in the kingdom face formidable barriers to any level of autonomy.

A male guardianship system, which limits everything from travel to decision-making, continues despite rhetorical promises to review, reform, or abolish the repressive control of women.

Despite the recent hope for change derived from giving women the right to drive (some of whom have been arrested), it’s a system that still requires male permission for a woman to secure a passport, marry, or be discharged from prison. Women might also have to seek permission from a husband, father, or son to access health care or to work.

* * *

In Saudi Arabia, drug trafficking, rape, murder, and armed robbery are punishable by death, often by barbaric methods.

Nearly two dozen migrant workers are on death row in the kingdom, where millions of migrant workers constitute over half the workforce. They suffer terrible abuse and exploitation, including forced labor tantamount to slavery.

Some employers confiscate workers’ passports (as they do with domestic workers), withhold wages, and abuse them physically and emotionally. Workers cannot leave the country or change jobs without the written consent of their employers, and they are punished for trying.

The kingdom discriminates against Muslim religious minorities in education, employment, and the justice system. It also uses uncodified Islamic law to sanction people accused of extramarital relationships and homosexual sex. In 2017, several dozen citizens of Pakistan, some of whom were transgender women, were arrested. One of them died in detention as a result of torture.

People can be arrested for “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or for “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Children are detained, and prisoners can be denied access to information about arbitrary charges and legal assistance.

Sentences include flogging, and children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults.

Pro-reform advocates and peaceful dissenters are routinely arrested and given long prison sentences. One prominent blogger was sentenced to 10 years in prison where he was flogged shortly after he entered jail.

* * *

The U.S. can hardly claim to champion human rights with any credibility given its history of slavery, its continuing racism and treatment of people of color, its failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and other obvious failures.

But it is incredible that the Trump administration continues to support Saudi Arabia’s slaughter in Yemen by providing massive amounts of arms, and to stand with its crown prince in denying credible evidence by the intelligence community that the prince did, indeed, order Khashoggi’s murder.

Even more astounding, in 2017 the United Nations member states elected Saudi Arabia to serve on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization held its international forum of non-government organizations in Riyadh, when the kingdom doesn’t allow such entities to function and jails human-rights advocates.

Equally outrageous, Saudi Arabia was elected a deputy member of the International Labour Organization despite not permitting unions to exist and flagrant abuses of migrant workers. The country has also served on the U.N. Human Rights Council, which at least saw fit to conduct investigations into abuses in Yemen, while the U.N. secretary general placed Saudi Arabia on his “list of shame.”

Viewed through a human-rights lens, it seems any of us who turn away or ignore Saudi Arabia’s travesties deserves to be on someone’s list of shame.

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