Saudi justice system 'blind to abuse of foreign workers'

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The Independent Online

Migrant workers who move to Saudi Arabia in the hope of a better life and a higher income can instead expect to be faced with torture, unfair trials and forced confessions if they are accused of crimes, according to a scathing Human Rights Watch report released yesterday.

Migrant workers who move to Saudi Arabia in the hope of a better life and a higher income can instead expect to be faced with torture, unfair trials and forced confessions if they are accused of crimes, according to a scathing Human Rights Watch report released yesterday.

The report, a damning investigation into the corruption and failure of the Saudi justice system to provide redress, also reveals the abysmal and exploitative labour conditions experienced by many foreign workers, who, at 8.8 million, make up one third of the kingdom's population. "Case after case demonstrates that the Saudis are turning a blind eye to systematic abuses against foreign workers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch in the region. "If the Saudi government is serious about reform, this would be a good place to start."

The report, which had to be documented overseas because the Saudi government ignored numerous requests to carry out field research, vehemently criticises the hereditary, unelected rulers who, it claims, choose secrecy over transparency at the expense of justice. The "appalling flaws in the system" are made clear in countless cases of torture, confessions signed under pressure, unfair trials and verdicts without the prisoner's knowledge, the report says.

A man from the Philippines, Joselito Alejo, was imprisoned for five years before his case, for which there was no substantiated evidence and which was eventually abandoned, came to trial. He suffered three weeks of torture and two months in solitary confinement. He recalls how police officials punched him every time he asked to go to the bathroom and extracted a forced confession by threatening to kill him.

Another of the most worrying cases is the beheading of K P Ghafoor, an Indian man who moved to Saudi Arabia in 1988 and was imprisoned after unknowingly taking part in drug trafficking. Ghafoor remained apparently unaware that he had been sentenced to death until he was beheaded in 2000. His family was only notified seven months later in a letter beginning: "We are sorry to inform you that your son was executed."

Human Rights Watch recommends that, until the legal system can rid itself of torture and coerced confessions as routine practices, the death penalty should be suspended. Also highlighted are the "slavery-like conditions" for many foreign workers, along with the gender discrimination and routine sexual abuse suffered by the majority of women in the kingdom.

Stories such as those of Melda, a Filipina raped twice by her employer in 2003, whose complaints were ignored by the police, or Edna, who worked as a domestic help for five months without being paid and finally left $1,308 (£704) out of pocket, are common.

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