SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) – “I am here to say we need democracy. We need freedom. We need to speak freely. We need no one to stop us from expressing our opinions.”
-Khaled al-Johani speaking to reporters at a protest where no one but he turned up on 11 March 2011 and was arrested shortly after.
Since March 2011 the Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a new wave of repression in the name of security. They have cracked down on demonstrators protesting over human rights violations in the context of calls for reform at home and the uprisings and mass protests in the region. At the same time, they are in the process of creating a new anti-terror law which threatens to exacerbate an already dire situation for freedom of expression, in which any real or perceived dissent is almost instantly suppressed. It would also legalize a number of abusive practices including arbitrary detention, thus consolidating draconian and abusive counter-terrorism measures imposed since 2001 against the backdrop of an extremely weak institutional framework for the protection of human rights.
State power in Saudi Arabia rests almost entirely with the King and the ruling Al Saud family. The Constitution gives the King absolute power over government institutions and the affairs of the state, and severely curtails political dissent and freedom of expression. The country’s 27 million residents have no political institutions independent of government, and political parties and trade unions are not tolerated. The media is severely constrained and those who express dissent face arrest and imprisonment, whether political critics, bloggers or academics. King Abdullah announced on 25 September 2011 that women will have the right to vote and run in municipal elections, the kingdom’s only public poll, from 2015 and be appointed to the Shura Council, a body that advises the monarchy. However, women remain subject to severe discrimination in both law and practice. Women are unable to travel, engage in paid work or higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian.
It is against this background that some Saudi Arabians have been insisting publicly that it is time for change and for their human rights to be respected. Many have tried to assert their right to peaceful protest on the streets. Some have demanded political and social reforms; others have called for the release of relatives detained without charge or trial on terrorism-related grounds. In response, the security forces have arrested hundreds of people for protesting or voicing their opposition to government policies this year. Most have been released without charge; others remain in detention without charge or trial; and others still have been charged with vague security-related and other offences. Amnesty International considers many of those detained to be prisoners of conscience, held solely for peacefully expressing their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
The formulation of a new anti-terror law is another apparent sign of the authorities’ to use the law to silence discontent in the Kingdom. A copy of the draft law was leaked to Amnesty International in late June 2011. Among other things, it would provide for the prosecution of acts of peaceful dissent as a “terrorist crime” such as “harming the reputation of the state or its position”. Questioning the integrity of the King or the Crown Prince would be punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison. The law would also give the authorities carte blanche to detain security suspects indefinitely without charge or trial. The draft law has been criticized by members of civil society in Saudi Arabia who see it as an attempt to justify the arrest, detention and punishment of pro-reform activists. Adapting the mantra repeated throughout the region during mass protests this year - “the people want to overthrow the regime” - one activist in Saudi Arabia said in reference to the draft law that “the regime wants to arrest the people”.
Thousands of people have been detained in the past decade on security grounds, many of whom remain behind bars. Among them are clerics and people suspected of belonging to or supporting armed Islamist groups such as al-Qa’ida or other groups opposed to the Saudi Arabian government or its links with the West. Typically, they have been detained for months in conditions of virtual secrecy, held without charge or trial for years and without any means of challenging their detention. Most have been held initially in prolonged incommunicado detention for interrogation for varying periods and have subsequently at times been denied
access to lawyers, medical assistance and family visits. Some, it appears, have been tried in secret and sentenced to prison terms. Some have been held for “re-education”.
Torture and other ill-treatment facilitated by incommunicado detention remain rife because interrogators know that they can commit their crimes without fear of punishment. The abuse is also encouraged by the ready acceptance by courts of “confessions” forced out of detainees using beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture and other ill-treatment.
Those who have been charged with security-related offences and brought to trial have faced grossly unfair and in many instances secret proceedings. Since its establishment in October 2008 such trials have generally been heard by the Specialized Criminal Court.
Caught up in the sweeping repression are an unknown number of human rights defenders, peaceful advocates of political reform, members of religious minorities and many others who have committed no internationally recognized offence. At least some of them are prisoners of conscience.
Saudi Arabia has witnessed sporadic incidents of political violence over the years, with state institutions, oil installations and Western nationals the most common targets. Amnesty International has repeatedly and unreservedly condemned killings and other abuses by armed groups and individuals in Saudi Arabia, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice in accordance with international standards and without recourse to the death penalty. It has also appealed to armed groups to respect the humanity of all individuals, and urged them to respect international law and standards that prohibit abuses such as the targeting of civilians and hostage-taking.
Amnesty International fully recognizes the duty and responsibility of the Saudi Arabian authorities to protect the public from violent attacks, including by bringing to justice people involved in such attacks. However, the Saudi Arabian authorities must at all times comply with their obligations under international human rights law and never violate the rights of suspects. Combating terrorism and other threats against public safety must not be used as a pretext or justification for violations of human rights or for allowing officials to commit such
violations with impunity.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL’S WORK
Researching human rights in Saudi Arabia is extremely difficult. The government does not allow Amnesty International to visit the country to research human rights issues; many other international observers have similar access problems. The state and its justice system operate largely in secret, and the media is severely censored and otherwise constrained. Independent human rights organizations and other NGOs are not permitted to operate freely, and civil society remains weak because of government repression. As a result, little information is recorded or published about human rights. Websites of organizations critical of the Saudi Arabian authorities have been blocked at times inside the country. After Amnesty International published a copy of the draft anti-terror law along with its concerns about it, its website www.amnesty.org was reportedly blocked within Saudi Arabia for around a week.The block appeared to be lifted after the blocking was widely reported in the international media and social media sites.
This report is based on information divulged to Amnesty International by people in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians or foreign nationals, including former prisoners, who have left the country. It is also based on government statements, where they exist, local and international media reports and other research carried out despite the obstacles.
The report follows up on issues covered in Amnesty International’s 2009 publication, Saudi Arabia: Assaulting human rights in the name of counter-terrorism.8 It updates cases and trials covered in that report, and includes information on new cases that have emerged since 2009 and others from previous years that have been brought to the organization’s attention since 2009. It also covers the crackdown on protests since early 2011.
Amnesty International regularly writes to the Saudi Arabian authorities about its concerns and to seek permission to visit the country, including to observe trials of security detainees, but generally does not receive substantive responses. On 26 August 2011 Amnesty International submitted a memorandum to the Saudi Arabian government to seek clarifications on the concerns and cases raised in this report. The government replied with a letter dated 20 September 2011 focusing on its concerns about Amnesty International’s publication of a leaked copy of the draft anti-terror law and clarifying some aspects of the legislative process
with respect to the law (see Chapter 2: Draft anti-terror law for further details on communication between Amnesty International and the Saudi Arabian government on this issue). The letter did not, however, provide any response to the memorandum’s request for information and comments on the issues and cases in this report. Amnesty International sent another letter to the Saudi Arabian government on 20 November, reminding it of the outstanding request and providing additional time for a response, but had not received any
further reply as of writing.
Amnesty International is publishing the information in this report to puncture the wall of secrecy around the gross and widespread human rights violations being committed in Saudi Arabia, and to help stop these violations. To this end, Amnesty International is calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities to take urgent action, including to:
immediately release all prisoners of conscience, such as those held solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, assembly or association;
end all arbitrary arrests and detentions;
provide prompt and public trials meeting international standards of fairness without recourse to the death penalty to all detainees charged or held, including on suspicion of terrorism-related offences, or else release them;
investigate thoroughly and independently all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and bring those found responsible to justice;
considerably amend the draft Penal Law for Terrorism Crimes and Financing of Terrorism and bring all of Saudi Arabia’s terrorism-related laws and practices into line with international human rights law and standards.