Saudi Activists Denied License to Found Human Rights Center

A Saudi court in the eastern city of Dammam dismissed a lawsuit by a group of activists against the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) for denying them a license to establish a human rights organization. A lawyer representing the founders of Qatif-based Adala Center for Human Rights received the verdict papers last month, and a member of the center told Riyadh Bureau today that they have filed an appeal of the verdict.

The three judges presiding over the case said in their ruling that they found MOSA’s refusal to register Adala as a licensed organization compatible with laws and regulations. MOSA has argued that their decision to deny a license to Adala was on the basis that they can only license charities, and that the activities of Adala are not covered by the Ministry’s definition of what is a charity.

The fact that Adala’s principles and goals are based on international laws and accords like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also of concern to the judges who said these “man-made laws” do not comply with Islamic Sharia.

“Using these man-made laws without reservations as it is evident in the Center’s charter violates Article 7 of the Basic Law of Governance,” the judges said. The Basic Law of Governance serves as a proto-constitution in Saudi Arabia where the uncodified tenets of Islamic Sharia remain the supreme law and judges, most of them trained as clerics, are granted excessive power to issue rulings according to their own interpretation of the law.

The kingdom does not currently have a law to license and regulate civil society organizations. The Shoura Council, a consultative body whose members are appointed by the King, discussed in 2006 a draft law for civil society organizations. The Council approved the draft law on January 6, 2008 and the proposal was sent to the Cabinet to get the final approval before implementation.

However, the Cabinet is yet to approve the draft law. The proposal remains in the drawers of the Cabinet despite repeated pleas from activists and members of the Shoura Council over the past five years to give it the green light.

Zaid al-Hussain, vice president of the government-run Human Rights Commission, told the daily al-Madina on Wednesday that he expects the new civil society law to be issued soon. The same thing has been said last September by former member of the Shoura Council Abdulrahman al-Enad, but there are still no signs that the release of this law is imminent.

The lack of a legal framework means that many activists and youth groups involved with civil society activities are operating in a grey zone. Without proper licensing, they cannot raise money, organize events or have a space of their own to hold meetings.

Founders of the Adala Center for Human Rights were hoping that winning their case against the Ministry of Social Affairs, which remained in courts for over 18 months, could set a legal precedent and encourage others to follow suit. According to its website, the center was established in December 10, 2011 by 21 founding members, including three women. Since then, Adala has wroked to document and report on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, especially in the Eastern Province that has witnessed frequent protests since March 2011.

Adala is one of several local human rights groups operating in the country without proper licensing. The National Society for Human Rights, established in 2004 with support from late King Fahad, is the only human rights group operating legally in the Saudi Arabia.