26 June 2009
Saudi Arabia: Dire human rights record exacerbated by counter-terrorism measures

The Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a sustained assault on human rights in the name of security and fighting terrorism. Thousands of people have been arrested and detained in virtual secrecy; others have been killed in uncertain circumstances in what the authorities say were clashes with the security forces. Hundreds face secret and summary trials and possible execution.

Anti-terrorism measures adopted by the government since the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001 have exacerbated long-standing patterns of human rights abuse.

Arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention of political and security suspects without trial and without access to lawyers are long-standing human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia. However, the number of people being detained arbitrarily in Saudi Arabia has risen from hundreds to thousands since 2001. Those arrested include Saudi Arabians and foreign nationals. In July 2007, the Interior Minister reported that 9,000 security suspects had been detained between 2003 and 2007 and that 3,106 of them remained held.

The detainees are held with no idea of what is going to happen to them. Most have been held for years without trial and have not been allowed access to lawyers and the courts to challenge the legality of their detention. They have invariably been held incommunicado following arrest and throughout the period of interrogation, which can last for years, before they are allowed family visits.  

Many are reported to have been tortured or otherwise ill treated, in order to extract confessions or as punishment after conviction. Reported methods of torture and other ill-treatment include severe beatings with sticks, punching, suspension from the ceiling, use of electric shocks, sleep deprivation, as well as flogging which is imposed as a legal punishment by itself or in addition to imprisonment, and can involve sentences of thousands of lashes.

Dr Saud al-Hashimi, a prisoner of conscience, is reported to have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment several times since his arrest in February 2007. The latest such treatment is reported to have taken place two weeks ago for starting a hunger strike against his indefinite detention without trial. He was reportedly stripped of all his clothes, except his underwear, shackled and dragged from his cell and placed in a severely cold cell for about five hours.

He and at least six other prisoners of conscience held with him in Dhahban Prison near Jeddah were targeted by the authorities for calling for political reform; discussing a proposal to establish an independent human rights organization in Saudi Arabia; and calling for an end to impunity for human rights violations committed by Ministry of Interior officials.

The Ministry of Interior says they were arrested for collecting money to support terrorism, but the detainees strongly deny this. Since their arrest, they have been detained without charge or trial and held in solitary confinement, and they remain at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

In October 2008, the government announced that a special criminal court was being established to try some 991 detainees accused of  capital offences but did not disclose the identities or any other details of the defendants or indicate whether they would have access to defence lawyers. This is especially worrying because trials of political or security detainees in Saudi Arabia invariably fail to meet international standards of fairness.

Court hearings are often held in secret and defendants are rarely permitted legal assistance or legal representation by a lawyer. In March 2009, the government said that the trials had begun, but again provided no further information. In many cases defendants and their families are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them. The trials of the 991 detainees appear to follow the long-standing pattern of extreme secrecy and summary trials and denial of any legal assistance at any stage of the trial process.   

Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, a 48-year-old Saudi Arabian lecturer at Um al-Qura University in Makkah, was arrested in 2003. The government said that he was arrested with a cell of "terrorists" but his trial was held in secret and he was not allowed any legal assistance or representation. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the detention of Abdul Rahman al-Sudais to be in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and said that "the fight against terrorism threats cannot justify undermining due process rights afforded to all accused…" In at least one other case the defendants were executed and their bodies were crucified.

The government of Saudi Arabia spares no effort in trying to hide these gross human rights violations. It does so in a number of ways, two of which are of particular importance: secrecy and clout. Secrecy, as already shown above, is a routine practice with detainees throughout their period of detention or imprisonment, but it does not finish there. When released, detainees are often required to promise not to speak about their ordeals in detention or face arrest and detention again.

It is also a regular practice faced by relatives of the detainees, who are often left in the dark about the fate of their loved ones. Those who try to challenge such secrecy can expect threats such as "if you don't keep quiet you will never see your relative again" or "you will be at risk of detention yourself".

Such threats can invoke scary television images of bodies of alleged terrorists killed by security forces, crucified bodies of people executed after secret and summary trials on alleged terrorist offences, and images of people confessing during their incommunicado detention to having been terrorists and seeking forgiveness. Relatives of detainees often urge Amnesty International and other human rights organizations not to take up the cases of their family members, fearing for their lives.

The country's huge oil resources and the privilege of being a focal point for over a billion Muslims around the world as the birthplace of Islam's prophet provides the government with significant power and influence in world affairs, which it has consistently deployed to quell attempts to scrutinize its human rights record. This is particularly the case with regard to human rights violations against political opponents and suspected terrorists.

The latest example of this has been the failure of the UN Human Rights Council to engage the government of Saudi Arabia substantively on the gross human rights abuses it is committing in the name of security and fighting terrorism.

Amnesty International submitted to the Council its concerns in this regard in November 2008 pointing out Saudi Arabia's failure to abide by the UN human rights framework for combating terrorism.

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