HRW accuses Saudi Arabia of repression despite reforms

DUBAI: Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia on Thursday of violating international humanitarian law in Yemen and stepping up arrests and prosecutions of activists seeking reform or voicing peaceful dissent.

In its World Report 2018, which reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries, the rights group reported it had documented 87 unlawful attacks by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, leading to nearly 1,000 civilian deaths.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government, backed by the coalition and supported by the United States and Britain, is trying to roll back the Iran-aligned Houthi militia which controls most of northern Yemen.

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The coalition has repeatedly denied allegations of war crimes and says its attacks are directed against its Houthi foes, not civilians.

A spokesperson for the coalition, in a statement responding to the report, said it was “unfair” to blame Saudi Arabia for the humanitarian situation in Yemen, adding that it had established an oversight mechanism which found that the coalition did not target civilians.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has given more than $8 billion in aid to Yemen from 2015 until 2017 and on Wednesday deposited $2 billion in the Central Bank of Yemen of the legitimate government, with the aim of boosting the country’s financial and economic situation while bolstering the Yemeni Riyal to improve the people’s living conditions,” the statement said.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has rocketed to the pinnacle of power in Saudi Arabia, pushing a reform agenda called Vision 2030 aimed at weaning the country off oil and introducing social changes.

Last week, women were allowed to attend a men’s soccer match in stadiums for the first time. This week, women-focused motorshows opened in Jeddah and Riyadh and a decades-long ban on screening films in the conservative kingdom was lifted.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said, more than a dozen prominent political activists convicted on “vague charges arising from their peaceful activities” were serving lengthy prison sentences.

“Mohammad bin Salman’s well-funded image as a reformist falls flat in the face of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe and scores of activists and political dissidents languishing in Saudi prisons on spurious charges,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“Baby steps on women’s rights reforms don’t paper over Saudi Arabia’s systemic abuses.”

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